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Education Law Prof Blog: Feds Needs to Get Their Facts Straight and Stop Misleading the Public About Education Funding

In its summary of the White House's proposed budget, the Office of Management and Budget explained why the White House was making cuts to public education programs.  It wrote:

Quality education exists when parents have a voice in choosing their child’s K-12 schools and students have the tools they need to succeed. Decades of investments and billions of dollars in spending have shown that an increase in funding does not guarantee high-quality education. While the Budget reduces the overall Federal role in education, the Budget makes strategic investments to support and empower families and improve access to postsecondary education, ensuring a future of prosperity for all Americans.

On one level, misleading and inaccurate characterizations of this sort are to be expected of political actors with an agenda.  OMB works for the President, so one might argue this is fair game.  On the other hand, I, probably naively, have understood the OMB to be a professional institution or to play a professional role.  One of its jobs is to help prepare the budget for the President.  The other job is the harder one of assessing the effectiveness of programs.  Even if the first job--preparing the budget--is political rather than just an execution function, the second job is empirical and should be apolitical.  Are programs effective?  Are they financially and administratively efficient, achieving their goals, etc.?  Most of the reports from OMB are snoozers, even for the well-educated.  They get into the nuts and bolts of bureaucracy, regulations, and minute statutory provisions to assess whether they are working.

This second professional role is what makes the OMB's statement on education funding so outrageous.  To be fair, one can defend it as technically accurate if one rips it out of context and its plain implications.  It only says that money does not "guarantee high-quality education."  If that is all that it means to imply, it is accurate, but it has simply said the obvious and is wasting ink and internet bandwidth. 

Nothing guarantees high quality education--not new buildings, not the best teachers, not the most integrated schools.  In education, the question is whether, on average, a particular input strongly correlates with high quality education or improved student outcomes.  Quality teachers, for instance, matter a lot.  Would the OMB ever say that "quality teachers do not guarantee high quality education?"  While that statement might be technically correct in some respect, it is an outrageous statement because the implication of the statement is not really that teachers don't guarantee quality; the implication is that teachers don't matter.

The point of OMB's statement regarding school funding is to say that money does not matter in education.  This implication becomes even clearer in the context of the sentences that precede and follow it.  The first sentence is telling us the White House wants to spend money on choice because choice matters most.  The last sentence is telling us that it is cutting money from public education because, again, money does not matter in public education.

Both of these claims are outrageous and demonstrably false.  The research on the effect of funding increases and decreases on student outcomes is growing stronger by the day.  As I have repeatedly hammered in prior posts:

  • A research team lead by Kirabo Jackson published Do School Spending Cuts Matter? Evidence from the Great Recession.  They found "districts that faced large revenue cuts disproportionately reduced spending on non-core operations. However, they still reduced core operational spending to some extent. A 10 percent school spending cut reduced test scores by about 7.8 percent of a standard deviation. Moreover, a 10 percent spending reduction during all four high-school years was associated with 2.6 percentage points lower graduation rates.
  • A prior study by Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson, and Claudia Persico looked at thirty years of data and found that a 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public school for children from poor families leads to about 0.9 more completed years of education, 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty; we find no effects for children from non-poor families. The magnitudes of these effects are sufficiently large to eliminate between two-thirds and all of the gaps in these adult outcomes between those raised in poor families and those raised in non-poor families. 
  • A Kansas legislative study found, with a 99% confidence level, "that the relationship between student performance and district spending was positive, i.e., that a 1% increase in student performance was associated with a .83% increase in spending. . . . 'Kansas students have made great academic strides ... largely due to the infusion of school funding.'”
  • Bruce Baker's review of all the prior studies on point reveals that "On average, aggregate measures of per-pupil spending are positively associated with improved or higher student outcomes. The size of this effect is larger in some studies than in others, and, in some cases, additional funding appears to matter more for some students than for others. Clearly, there are other factors that may moderate the influence of funding on student outcomes, such as how that money is spent. In other words, money must be spent wisely to yield benefits. But, on balance, in direct tests of the relationship between financial resources and student outcomes, money matters."

Thus, it is misleading, at best, to even suggest that money does not affect the quality of education. 

Even if you focus on the word "guarantee" in OMB's statement and concede that money does not guarantee high quality education, we have to be fair and then apply the same reading to the statements about choice.  The implication is that while money does not guarantee high quality education, choice does or choice is more likely to lead to high quality education.  Or we might say that funding does not guarantee quality education, but choice does.  This latter version is impossible to swallow.

If we are talking about the vouchers and charters that the White House wants to spend money on, the answer is that vouchers have not proven to be effective at all and charters have only proven effective in a relatively small percentage of schools.  Most charters perform no better or worse than their traditional public school counter parts. See hereherehere; and here.

This type of statements are to be expected from the current Secretary of Education, but it is troubling when an organization with OMB's mission a) wades into substantive matters it may know very little about and b) makes misleading, if not false statements, about facts that it should be objectively evaluating.

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Derek W. Black

Derek Black is one of the nation’s foremost experts in education law and policy.  He focuses on educational equality, school funding, the constitutional right to ...