Tom Bethell, "Spending More, Learning Less," The American Spectator, vol. 39, December 2006/January 2007, pp. 66-69. Copyright © The American Spectator 2007. Reproduced by permission.
"'Dramatic increases in resources have not led to improvement in the performance of our students.'"
In the following viewpoint, Tom Bethell argues that the expansion of the federal government's role in education since 1970 has not resulted in a better education system. Democrats and Republicans alike believe that the more budget money is spent on education, the more schools will improve. This has not been demonstrated to be true, Bethell says, citing numerous cases of school districts that saw little to no improvement in the quality of their schools after receiving vastly more funding. Tom Bethell is a senior editor of the American Spectator and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.
As you read, consider the following questions:
- Why did courts initially get involved in the school funding issue, according to Bethell?
- What destroyed Washington, D.C.'s Dunbar High School's tradition of excellence, according to the authors of Courting Failure?
- What does Bethell predict will be the fate of No Child Left Behind?
The U.S. Department of Education was created in 1979, with an initial budget of about $15 billion. Within a few months, on the campaign trail, Ronald Reagan was calling for its abolition. He renewed that rallying cry in his first State of the Union address. As late as 1996, the Republican Party was still talking about abolishing the department, but by then everyone must have known it was too late. (Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma remains a valiant abolitionist to this day.)
Between 1970 and 2000, government spending on education, adjusted for inflation, rose from about $3,000 per pupil to $5,600. Then came President [George W.] Bush's No Child Left Behind law. More spending increases were on the way—but dismayed conservatives were given a bone. With the money would come "accountability": students would have to take tests from time to time.
Having sent nearly all its political contributions to the Democrats, and numerous delegates to the Democratic Convention, the National Education Association [NEA] was happy. And no doubt surprised. Bush, eager to show that his heart was in the right place when it came to government schooling, had joined forces with Ted Kennedy.
By 2004, Bush saw the expanded federal role in education as an accomplishment of his presidency. If Republicans would only spend more, he seemed to think, Democrats would have no reason to accuse them of miserliness. Federal spending on education received a bigger boost from 2002 to 2004 than in all the eight years of the [President Bill] Clinton administration. Today , the budget of the Department of Education is about $58 billion.
An Accepted Notion
All liberals and probably most conservatives accept that if more government money is spent to reach some goal, the nation will come closer to attaining it. More money for the Department of Education, for example, means that schoolchildren will get a better education. President Bush seems to have accepted that without a second thought.
In Washington, almost all the forces are arrayed on one side. The teacher unions and the education industry press for more money, and the people mostly still believe that more money will translate into better education. Legislators who vote for the increases have reason to expect that they will be rewarded with votes. The problem is that when the man who should resist these self-interested parties, the President of the United States, himself supports more spending, the taxpayers are the losers.
Now there's another and growing source of pressure: the judiciary. Courts first became involved because some school districts were spending more than others. That was judged unfair. Then came a new rationale for judicial intervention—"adequacy." In an Alabama district, where spending across school districts was equal, students were still doing poorly. Why? Because the funding was inadequate, lawyers argued. Judges happily accepted that.
But as Eric Hanushek argues in a new book, Courting Failure, "dramatic increases in resources have not led to improvement in the performance of our students." This fascinating collection of articles by a task force on education at the Hoover Institution makes the case that intervention by judges may actually have done more harm than good (to children; not necessarily to administrators). The book also raises basic questions about the effectiveness of government spending in this field.
The new emphasis on testing was intended to expose low-performing schools. Threatened with a loss of funds, they would surely have an incentive to do better. Nonetheless, "accountability" soon became a weapon in the hands of the "spend-more" crowd. In 2005, the NEA filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education, demanding that it pump up spending on poverty performing schools. Then they would have the "resources" to meet the new standards. Without argument, poor performance was attributed to an insufficiency of dollars. That was treated as a given.
Sol Stern, who writes on education issues for City Journal, has a good chapter in Courting Failure on recent developments in the New York schools. A judge has ruled that schools should receive an additional $5.63 billion a year, and soon enough the state's high court is expected to order the legislature to cough up the money.
The underlying theory—more money yields better schooling—received a real world test even as the case was litigated (over 13 years). In 1992, New York City spent an average of $7,495 per student. In the '90s this soared to almost $12,000 (or $12.5 billion total). Now, the overall budget is up to about $17 billion. Yet judges and New York pols [politicians] say they must have another $5.4 billion a year. Annual expenditures for the city's schools would then reach $22 billion, or about $20,000 per student.
Since the original lawsuit was filed in 1993, Stern writes, "total spending for the city's schools has more than doubled." Yet it hasn't affected the results. "More than half of the city's children still can't read at grade level, and only 15 percent of New York City students graduated with a Regents diploma." Stern calls this whole exercise a "March of Folly."
Kansas City Experiment
In a separate essay Williamson M. Evers and Paul Clopton examine other school districts that spend high and achieve low: among them Kansas City, Missouri; Washington, D.C.; and many districts in New Jersey.
From 1984 to 1997, Kansas City was subjected to a court experiment in lavish spending (ordered by Federal District Judge Russell Clark). It reached about $12,000 per student, more than double the state average. Almost half the state's education budget went to two districts with less than 10 percent of the state's students. Fifteen new schools were built, dozens more were renovated, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool was added for good measure.
A million-dollar advertising campaign tried to lure suburban students back to the city's schools. They could even come by taxi, the fare to be paid by the school district. Student-teacher ratios of 12 or 13 to 1 were the lowest of any major district in the country. To fund his experiment, Judge Clark, in disregard of all constitutional precedent, ordered a doubling of Kansas City's property tax rates.
Criminal mismanagement was just one outcome. "Employees stole hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment every year, finance officers wrote checks directly to themselves, and insiders described the atmosphere as that of a 'third world country' suddenly endowed with 'unlimited wealth,'" the authors write.
Teacher salaries were raised 50 percent in one year, yet the quality of new hires was unaffected. As for the results, they were "as disappointing as the corruption, inefficiency and mismanagement. Test scores failed to improve over the course of the program." Kansas City remained 10 to 20 points below the state average. The black-white gap didn't go away, and by the mid-1990s few white students remained in the district. As a result, "nonwhite enrollment was above 90 percent in many schools."
The authors conclude that Kansas City's schools "may have been among the best funded in the country, but they remain among the worst performing to this day." In 2000 the district "flunked everyone of eleven performance measures for accreditation, which it lost." It has been kept going recently thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which seems to enjoy giving more money to whatever the government has already lavishly funded.
D.C. Schools in Crisis
Washington, D.C.'s government schools tell a no less remarkable story. "All too few of the schoolchildren of the District of Columbia Public Schools can read, write and calculate," Evers and Clopton allow. "Its schools are in crisis, despite huge spending on public education." A control board appointed by President Clinton concluded that "for each additional year that students stay in the D.C. Public Schools, the less likely they are to succeed."
In 2003, D.C. eighth graders barely outscored U.S. fourth graders in math, and for the last 40 years almost half of its eighth grade students have failed to graduate. In College Board SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test] scores Washington's students score way below the rest of the country, "despite funding levels at 50 percent, 60 percent and even 70 percent above the national average."
Even as pupil enrollment declined by 33,000, the system's central office staff doubled. One administrator sufficed for 42 teachers across the nation, but there was one for every 16 in Washington, D.C. No one bothered with academics or student achievement. The tradition of excellence at Dunbar High School, from which many blacks graduated at an outstanding level in earlier decades, was destroyed after Brown v. Board of Education (1954) when it became a neighborhood school. Of this calamity the authors write:
Enough of these neighborhood students were so highly disruptive and inadequately motivated that Dunbar's ethos of excellence was soon under siege. When district administrators and Washington, D.C. politicians declined to defend that ethos, Dunbar's all-star teaching staff retired or moved away, and its motto ("Perseverance is king") was replaced by self-serving excuses. Today, although Dunbar has better facilities and funding than it ever had during its eighty-five year reign as a jewel of student achievement, Dunbar is a failing ghetto school.
In his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals (2005), Thomas Sowell explores the almost willful destruction of Dunbar High School. One is left wondering whether liberals really are interested in black educational achievement. Perhaps they prefer black failure as a sign of the persistently unregenerate character of American society.
New Jersey Schools
When it comes to spending on government schooling, New Jersey is the most profligate in the nation. A class-action suit on behalf of students from poorer districts claimed that these students were both receiving less money and doing far worse academically than those from well-to-do districts. It was known as Abbott v. Burke. The court ordered the poorer (known as Abbott) districts to receive as much money per student as was being spent in the well-to-do districts.
In 1999, the state supreme court ordered up the following menu: "put into effect whole-school reform, provide full-day nursery school and kindergarten for all three- and four-year olds, launch a state-managed building program, provide advanced technology and additional vocational education, summer-school and after-school programs."
Today, New Jersey spends about $12,000 per student per year on average, but in some Abbott districts it is as high as $18,000. By comparison, suburban (non-Abbott) districts spend about $10,000 a year per student. What are the results? Despite an additional $3 billion spent on the schools, Evers and Clopton write,
there has been no improvement across the Abbott districts. Student achievement in New Jersey's lowest-income school districts is persistently far worse than that in other school districts in the state. As Peter Denton—founder and chairman of Excellent Education for Everyone—says, the "horrible reality" is that over the several decades in which New Jersey has tripled spending on its low-income urban schools, their performance has "steadily declined" as measured by college attendance rates, standardized test scores, K-12 [kindergarten through high school] attendance rates, and high school graduation rates.
A Tenet Central to Liberalism
The authors also have excellent accounts of what has gone on (and gone wrong) in the Cambridge, Massachusetts district, graced by Harvard and MIT, which spends twice the state average per pupil, and Sausalito, California, one of the richest suburbs of San Francisco. Cambridge consistently performs below the state and even the national average for grade level reading and math; Sausalito actually receives $24,388 per student in funds, yet performance is dismal there, too. But there is no need to go on. You get the picture by now.
The belief that "dollars spent" is a reliable proxy for performance will not go away any time soon. It is central to the liberal faith as a whole, and it won't be abandoned without a huge fight. At the moment only libertarians seem capable of challenging the idea. Oxymoronic "big government conservatives" actively support it. And, alas, we have not even reached the stage where a Republican president can be expected to resist big spending on principle.
Educational testing has the merit of allowing the success of a few government programs to be measured. In most government fields, this is not so easy. So it comes as no surprise to read (in the Washington Post ...) that "Political Backlash Builds Over High-Stakes Testing." A Democrat running for governor in Florida has decided that school tests are "punitive," But when students routinely fail them, one hopes that there is some penalty. That's what tests are for. As for the parents, they are said to be "outraged"; not because their kids are doing poorly in school, but because tests make such failure more conspicuous.
It's easy to predict the fate of No Child Left Behind. The spending increases will be pocketed and the "accountability" will be junked.