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By Jordan Weissmann
Modern education reformers often repeat the idea that simply throwing more money at public schools isn’t enough to improve them. As the Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution who’s done a great deal of academic writing on the subject, puts it, “We know that there’s not much relationship between spending and performance.” Rather than funnel more dollars to public education, the thinking goes, we need to change how funding gets used (which, in the minds of many, means strict standards enforced by a boatload of testing, plus weaker teachers’ unions).
But what if simply throwing more money at schools actually is a reasonable approach? A couple of interesting recent studies suggest it might be. Both look at what’s happened to school districts following court decisions that forced states to increase their funding. The most recent, a working paper from economists at the University of California, Berkeley, and Northwestern University, finds that in the wake of such judicial decisions, test scores gradually improved for pupils in low-income districts, both in absolute terms and relative to their peers in wealthier districts. The improvements in student achievement were fairly large and, according to some of their calculations, pretty cost-effective.
“Our results thus show that money can and does matter in education,” authors Julien Lafortune, Jesse Rothstein, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach write. “School finance reforms are blunt tools, and some critics … have argued that they will be offset by changes in district or voter choices over tax rates or that funds will be spent so inefficiently as to be wasted. Our results do not support these claims. Courts and legislatures can evidently force improvements in school quality for students in low-income districts.”
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