Money matters, maybe it’s just public education that doesn’t?

Cross-posted from

Maureen Downey, on her blog writes, “I have never understood the disagreement over whether money matters in education.” After all she points out, “top private schools – the ones that cater to the children of highly educated parents – charge tuition two to three times higher than the average per pupil spending at the local public schools. And these private schools serve students with every possible learning advantage, kids nurtured to excel from the first sonogram. The elite schools charge $17,000 to $25,000 a year in tuition and hit parents up for donations on a regular basis.”

I get where she is coming from, but also think she is taking literary license in writing she doesn’t understand the disagreement. I suspect just like me, she does understand, because it really isn’t that complicated. The “disagreement” is stoked by a myriad of those who would stand to gain from continued underfunding of public education. These include state lawmakers, who would rather divert public education funding to other special interests; commercial profiteers who look to get their piece of the nation’s $700 billion K–12 education market, and the wealthy who want to keep their piece of the pie as big as possible and not have it eaten up by more taxes to pay for “those children’s” education.

One of the most common refrains I hear from the “money doesn’t matter” crowd is “just look at how much they spend in Washington D.C. yet their schools continue to underperform.” Of course, those of us “in the know”, know that where there is concentrated poverty, there are a myriad of challenges presented that are very difficult for schools alone to overcome. We also know that how the money is spent is a key factor in how well it works. No, money is not the only answer, but there is plenty of proof that it does matter.

As reported by Rutgers professor Bruce Baker in an Albert Shanker Institute report, “On average, aggregate measures of per-pupil spending are positively associated with improved or higher student outcomes.” He goes on to write, “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.” Plain and simple, the things that cost money “(smaller class sizes, additional supports, early childhood programs and more competitive teacher compensation) are positively associated with student outcomes.” A study by “Jackson, Johnson & Persico in 2015, evaluated long-term outcomes of children exposed to court-ordered school finance reforms, finding that “a 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all twelve years of public school leads to 0.27 more completed years of education, 7.25 percent higher wages, and a 3.67 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty; effects are much more pronounced for children from low-income families.” Likewise, a study of Kansas school finance reforms in the 1990s found that “a 20 percent increase in spending was associated with a 5 percent increase in the likelihood of students going on to postsecondary education. “There is” writes, “a sizeable and growing body of rigorous empirical literature validates that state school finance reforms can have substantive, positive effects on student outcomes, including reductions in outcome disparities or increases in overall outcome levels.”

Of course, I’ve no doubt the “money doesn’t matter” crowd can dig up some “facts” of their own. But, I ask you to forget all the facts (after all, they don’t matter anyway, right?) and just think about what makes common sense?
– Is the critical shortage of teachers in Arizona classrooms good for student achievement? (Average AZ teacher salaries are the 48th lowest in the nation.)
– Can students learn as well when the ratio of students to teachers is 23:1 versus having 7 less children in the classroom? (Nationwide, the average number of students per teacher was 16:1 in the 2013–14 school year.)
– Can students concentrate in a classroom that is too hot or too cold, or where water leaks into it when it rains, or where lighting is insufficient? (From 2008 to 2012, districts received only two cents of every dollar they should have received for facility maintenance and renewal and a pending new lawsuit is evidence the trend isn’t improving.)school-funding-011817
So, we know that money can make a difference, and wealthy parents that pay big bucks for their children to attend elite private schools know that it matters. Small class sizes, highly qualified teachers, beautiful facilities and campuses all make a difference and that’s why parents with significant means are willing to pay for those things.

Arizonans are willing to pay more for education as well, as indicated by recent polling which shows 70% think we need to plus-up education spending and with 61% willing to pay higher taxes to do it. “Read my lips” Governor Ducey though, is determined not only to not raise taxes, but cut them every year he is in office while also continuing his steadfast committment to corporate welfare in the form of tax cuts. The $114 million he has proposed for the FY 2018 budget isn’t nothing (and it is new money as opposed to that which already belongs to education), but it also isn’t nearly enough. As David Safier points out in, it moves us all the way from 49th in per student spending to well…49th. And, this is just the Governor’s proposal, the Legislature is the entity actually charged with passing the budget. In addition, it isn’t just that our districts are currently underfunded, but that the funding continues to be siphoned away by commercial schools’ choice. The impacts of a “leaking bucket” with an insufficient stream of water to keep ahead of the losses are really starting to stack up. Money matters alright, maybe its just public education that doesn’t (at least to our Legislature.)

4 responses to “Money matters, maybe it’s just public education that doesn’t?

  1. John Huppenthal

    A major Arizona urban school district did a large study, was just published in a local paper on teacher turnover.

    Painted a completely different picture of teacher turnover. Their turnover was nil – much lower than average turnover rates in the private sector.

    The real problem in the teaching profession is job satisfaction. Nationwide, only 26% of teachers rate their school an excellent place to work. And few of them cite money as the reason for that low satisfaction.

    That low level of teacher job satisfaction is one of the core reasons for our failure to perform better academically.

    When I was school board chairman, I made measured teacher job satisfaction a direct job responsibility of our principals and tied it, in a positive way, into their compensation. As a result, we were able to improve teacher job satisfaction every single semester for seven years. In a systematic way, we took suggestions that teachers made for improving our schools and did our best to implement every single one. We also focused on autonomy, shielding the teachers from screwy accountability schemes and other interference.

    We also drenched teachers in feedback from parents and students, again in a positive constructive way so that they had the tools and information necessary to steadily improve that relationship.

    If you focus on quality, money will take care of itself and, largely, become much less important to everyone.

  2. John Huppenthal


    We don’t have to look up “facts” of our own, all we have to do is look closely at your facts. Read very carefully the description of the Jackson, Johnson and Persico study. Then, imagine the following Einstein thought experiment: you randomly sample 200,000 students a year dividing them into two “states” one state is given $8,000 to educate each child and the other state is given $12,000. After a generation of education, there are no differences between the two states (if there were, the study would have touted it).

    Then, each state is given 10% more per child.

    The study would have us believe that $4,000 a year does not make a difference but $800 does.

  3. Frances Perkins

    If “throwing money” makes no difference in education, then private schools do not need ANY government money, and the charter school industry does not need any more money nor any additional schools. By the way the term “school reformers” should be banned from the lexicon and “public school destroyers” should be used. If DeVos’s reform meant anything, after over 20 years of trying to buy her way to “reform” by the charter school industry, success should be profound. It is obviously not.

    • You are so right Frances! Although there are some pockets of excellence in the the commercial school industry (as there are plenty among district schools), DeVos’ Michigan maraud hasn’t produced successes, far from it.