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School Improvement: It’s Spending, Not Just the Money

They say money can’t buy happiness, but can it buy opportunity?

Educators and policy makers have long debated whether funding, by itself, is enough to help turn bad schools into good ones.

Proponents of this philosophy contend that money is a capable equalizer. That is to say that schools with higher budgets often have the resources to foster a heathier school environment and higher quality teachers. All that goodness, in turn, hypothetically translates into more opportunities and, eventually, better prospects for students.

Much of this turns out to be true—with a caveat: policy-makers and school leaders have to spend funds wisely.

In response to a school funding lawsuit there, the Texas assistant solicitor general told the court, “Money isn’t pixie dust. Funding is no guarantee of better student outcomes.”

Recently, NPR examined several school funding examples.

Here’s the upshot of what they learned:

Funding works best when it reaches those students who need it most.
Take Goshen, Ind., for example. NPR reports that Goshen has the largest concentration of Latino students in the state. Policy-makers there recently cut spending on programs intended to provide support, including English-language learning, to poverty-stricken students and their families.

The decision was due to an extensive policy rewrite that aims to disperse state funds more equitably across districts regardless of socioeconomic circumstances or location.

With nearly $3 million less in the till for some of its needy students, educators in Goshen faced the prospect of cutting nearly a third of the community’s English-language learning program.

That wasn’t an option for Superintendent Diane Woodworth. “We’re not going to go there, because we’ll find money,” Woodworth told NPR. “I’m an eternal optimist.”

The most impactful increases happen steadily, year over year.
Between 1993 and 2003, the public school budget in Revere, Mass., increased by an estimated $5 million year over year. A large chunk of that funding was funneled toward a statewide focus on increasing educational opportunities for low-income families.

School officials in Revere used the funds to hire more teachers, upgrade learning environments, and update nearly 40-year-old text books. These days, around 90 percent of Revere’s graduates go on to some form of postsecondary education.

Funding should be laser-focused on school and student improvement.
But money doesn’t cure all ills, reports NPR. Consider the case of Camden, N.J., where schools reportedly spend a whopping $25,000 a student, or more than twice the national average.

While schools have shown modest improvements, the article says student performance in Camden remains extremely poor. According to NPR, 90 percent of high school students in Camden aren’t proficient in math or language arts.

Critics say underlying problems—namely, extensive poverty—prevent the funding from having the impact it would in others places. Some in the community have suggested reevaluating how school funds are spent.

A new measure of success?
The federal Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives states more leeway in how they measure and report school and student achievement. No longer are standardized tests the primary measure of success. Indicators such as school climate and teacher and student engagement also factor into the equation.

As ESSA is implemented, your district will need to ask itself what measures of success are most important and how it plans to spend vital taxpayer funds year over year to meet those goals.

Want to start a conversation with parents and others about the best use of your district’s education budget? Start by asking the right questions.