The argument about the sine qua non role public school funding plays in academic outcomes seems to be settled science. Money matters, end of story, we are told. The work of Kirabo Jackson, Bruce Baker, and a host of other researchers produce the evidence for any dullard who dare disagree.
For example, the Shanker Institute says – rather decisively – “on average, aggregate measures of per-pupil spending are positively associated with improved or higher student outcomes.” There once a body of research doubtful about the link between dollars and diplomas, but after decades of that doubt, emergent progressive academics have frustrated the conservative claims that money isn’t everything.
Or so it might seem.
A new report by Catrin Wigfall at the Center of the American Experiment looks at Minnesota as an instructive example of how unsettled the science actually is. It at very least raises questions unanswered by the public school funding boosters. Her research offers three findings that go a long way to contradict conventional claims about school funding:
Diving deeper into the evidence supporting those findings, here is what Catrin says:
Disaggregating groups of students gives a better picture of a state’s academic performance and helps put to rest the claim that more spending necessarily improves student performance.
For example, Texas spends $9,375 per pupil compared to Minnesota’s $12,647 per pupil. Yet Texas black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander students outperformed Minnesota black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander students on each 2019 NAEP subject test for each grade level. Thus, assuming that Minnesota must do a better job educating its students because it spends more money is not accurate.
Mississippi, who spends $8,771 per student and whose student body is made up of nearly 49 percent black students compared to Minnesota’s 10.7 percent, has better performance than our state among students of color. Mississippi black and Hispanic students in both fourth and eighth grade math and reading outperformed Minnesota black and Hispanic students. Equally important, Mississippi’s NAEP test scores for fourth and eighth grade black students have been scaling up over the years, compared to Minnesota’s declining scores among fourth and eighth grade black students. And among low-income students—of which Mississippi has 75 percent compared to Minnesota’s 37 percent—Mississippi fourth graders ranked 3rd in the nation in reading. Minnesota’s low-income students ranked 40th.
There must be an explanation for how a big-spending liberal state like Minnesota would trail low-spending (and presumably racially backward southern states) on academic achievement for students of color, right?
I’m waiting for it.
I’ve invited Kirabo Jackson and Bruce Baker on to my morning broadcast but they haven’t agreed to join me yet. I wish they would because Catrin’s appearance left me with plenty of questions.
Even if there is some complex empirical answer for how some states spend more to produce less student success, there will always be confounding common sense questions for me. Like, how much does school funding matter to academic achievement when school districts spend $80 million on high school football stadiums, or allow bureaucratic inefficiencies to cause colossal budget overruns, or pay superintendents weirdly large salaries; or states make one unsustainable public employee pension deal after another; or local school boards to sign collective bargaining agreements that fatten union war chests while bankrupting districts and starving children?
If money matters, should it matter how it is spent too?
For now, as a lowly pedestrian to education debates, and a permanent observer of how “Minnesota nice” turns Black streets mean, I’ll rest in the knowledge of how the supposed empirical truths of money-first commentators hide the savagely practical realities faced by students in failing progressive cities and states.
School funding and academic achievement may be married, but the constantly quarreling from separate bedrooms and rumored to have divorced years ago but are staying together “for the kids.”
Here is a pdf of Catrin’s report:
Do you want to see my conversation with Catrin on the Citizen Ed morning broadcast? Here it is: