Court-ordered funding doesn't boost achievement

Court-ordered school funding hasn’t helped disadvantaged students write Eric Hanushek and Alfred Lindseth, authors of Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America’s Public School.


Since the late 1980s, state court judges in over twenty states, deriving their authority from the education clauses of their respective state constitutions, have struck down school finance systems as not “adequate.” Pointing to evidence of unacceptable student achievement outcomes, especially among poor and disadvantaged students, advocates of court intervention argue that student outcomes can be improved with additional funding; that is, all children can learn, given sufficient resources. Many courts have accepted this premise and have ordered legislatures to provide unprecedented increases in state appropriations for K-12 schools. Unfortunately, the track record of these judicial interventions suggests that increased funding without other more fundamental changes typically does not lead to improved student performance.

Disadvantaged students did no better in Kentucky, Wyoming and New Jersey. In Massachusetts, Hispanic students gained but blacks did not.

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Comments

  1. Tracy W says:

    This strikes me as an argument for strictly limiting what gets written into constitutions, perhaps limiting them to the political process (eg the voting process, freedom of speech, age of franchise). Judges have no particular expertise in delivering quality programmes.

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    The Constitution, in my state anyway, very appropriately lays out the responsibilities of (state) government, including the provision of a “thorough and efficient system of education.” The question raised, in my state, as well as in some others, has to do not so much with the amount of funding needed for “adequacy,” is it has to do with ensuring that the state follows through on its responsibility, not overburdening local entities with disparate fund-raising responsibilities. In fact, the judges were loathe to enter into a definition of either quality or adequacy–leaving to the legislature the determiniation of how to change the existing system and its over-reliance on local taxation for support of schools.

    The legislature abdicated (in four times at the bench). The problem is not with the Constitution, or with the knowledge of the legislature, who certainly do have the smarts to be able to draw on the expertise of both educators and finance experts, if they so choose. The creation of an adequate and equitable system is heavily resisted in some quarters, however, by folks who have the resources to both purchase high-priced real estate, and to tax themselves heavily on it–so long as it benefits their own children more than others–and particularly so if it keeps their children at a distance from the disadvantaged ones. So–while tax raising is never popular, what is actually called for is tax shifting–which means actually committing to a more equitable situation.

    Blaming the courts for being able to define the problem is nothing more than a means of avoiding our unwillingness/inability to act on any movement in the direction of a more social, less personal response. While it is true that most US efforts have not yielded tremendous results, it is possible to point to other countries with a greater level of acceptance of social responsibility where not only do children, on average, achieve better than ours, but their children also reflect smaller levels of disparity– both in consideration of top to bottom differences, but also between school differences.

  3. Ragnarok says:

    C’mon, Margo!

    The courts have a bloody terrible record in this area, and not all the verbiage in the world can change that.

    Want a textbook example? Look at the Kansas case (I think Allen referenced it some time ago).

  4. Margo/Mom says:

    R–and the alternative that you are suggesting is…?

  5. Ragnarok says:

    “R–and the alternative that you are suggesting is…?”

    Remember the Hippocratic oath? “First, do no harm”? Obviously these judges don’t.

    First, keep these judges out: They do harm by reaching into our pockets for yet more money – usually a great deal more – for the vastly over-funded public schools, and we have no recourse. And of course the results are almost always terrible.

    Second, let the money follow the student, no ifs, buts or ands.

  6. Knock me over with a feather!! Gov’t intervention doesn’t replace family support? You haters!!!!

  7. Margo/Mom, the UK does not have a written constitution, but provides government-funded education and has been providing it for decades. As does NZ, despite equally lacking a constitution at all. (This is not to say that constitutions are bad things per se, different countries have different cultural and legal histories, and if it works, why break it?)

    And I don’t think that courts can force states to follow through on a promise to provide a “thorough and efficient system of education”. You say that judges were loathe to even define quality or adequacy. If true, this rather supports my idea that these are sillly things to put into a constitution, as the judges can’t even be stuffed defining it. .

    I don’t see any reason to believe that judges have any special qualification to decide what is an “over-reliance on local taxation” either. Or what is an adequate and equitable system.

    Blaming the courts for being able to define the problem is nothing more than a means of avoiding our unwillingness/inability to act on any movement in the direction of a more social, less personal response.

    I don’t know of anyone who blames the courts for being able to define the problem. As I understand it, Eric Hanushek and Alfred Lindseth are criticising courts for not properly defining the problem, and thinking it’s about funding when, to quote them “increased funding without other more fundamental changes typically does not lead to improved performance.” I personally am saying that I think it’s a stupid idea to put this sort of thing in the constitution at all. I think that constitutions should be restricted to things that are more concrete (eg every citizen over age 18 gets to vote) and process-orientated, not outcome-orientated.

    While it is true that most US efforts have not yielded tremendous results, it is possible to point to other countries with a greater level of acceptance of social responsibility where not only do children, on average, achieve better than ours, but their children also reflect smaller levels of disparity– both in consideration of top to bottom differences, but also between school differences.

    This doesn’t mean that other countries achieve that because the courts there enforce a “thorough and efficient system of educationt.”

  8. Margo/Mom says:

    OK–Civics 101. One of the foundational features of American constitutional democracy (at the federal level, and generally implemented by most states) is the system of checks and balances. The Constitution spells out the larger principles, as well as those powers which belong to government (and to which government–federal, state, local). The federal government grants to the states the rights and responsibilities with regard to education (and how they have used a funding stream to leverage influence into education with the agreement of individual states is another very large discussion)–under the general heading of “everything else not specifically mentioned.” Each of the fifty states is free to delineate this responsibility as it sees fit. Hawaii chooses to operate a single state-wide system. Most states, while placing the responsibility at the state level, have relied heavily on some form of local control and local funding (which has allowed for some major disparities and inequities–as all local communities are not equally resourced).

    The general principles laid out in the constitution also serve to define the powers of Congress (or state legislature). It is the job of the courts to settle any questions with regard to the constitutionality of the actions of the other branches of government. Checks on the courts are provided by appointment and approval powers of the legislative and executive branches. So, when a group of citizens observes that with regard to the equal right to public education, some citizens are more equal than others, it is appropriate, by way of redress and holding the legislative branch accountable, to approach the court to make a decision. I don’t know that it matters a whole lot if the words are “thorough and efficient” or “equitable and adequate,” or simply “statewide” the principle that is being tested is whether the state is upholding its responsibility, or sloughing it off on the locals to the detriment of some part of the citizenry.

    Now–I haven’t read Hanushek’s book, but I have read other research by Hanushek and have some respect for him. The first thing that I would want to look at, however, is whether there has in fact been any economic redistribution (of funding) as a result of court orders. In my state there has been some, however a level of equity has not been reached. And, according to some research, inequity within districts may exceed inequity between districts. This has not been touched by court orders. I also would be interested in Hanushek’s recommendations. One recommendation that I have picked up from other of his writing is to allow for critical decision-making (hiring, firing, curriculum) to be made at building levels–but within a system that stresses accountability for outcomes. This does not negate the need for equity in funding, but rather provides for the “what else” needs to accompany it in order to achieve results.

  9. Ragnarok says:

    Margo,

    From the rather forbidding thicket of prose above, I gather you’re in favour of allowing judges to meddle in the schools, in spite of their tendency to worsen the situation? Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    “…which has allowed for some major disparities and inequities–as all local communities are not equally resourced”

    And why should they? If you’ve worked hard and are able to give your children a better education, who the devil am I to deny you that right?

  10. Margo/Mom says:

    R: I would say that I support our Constitutional system in a pretty general way. That is not to say that I agree with every piece of legislation enacted, every representative elected, or every ruling of every court. Further, I believe in public education. And I accept responsibility as a citizen for ensuring equal access to the public education, as well as any other fruits of democracy. If you have worked hard and feel that you are capable of providing your children through your individual efforts with better than is available–well, welcome to it. This does not negate your responsibilities in the public realm. Nor should you, or anyone confuse that individual provision with getting together with a bunch of your better to-do-buddies and pulling down public resources through that public system that your withhold from others less well situated.

    We can disagree on these points. But then, after all, sorting out such disagreements is the function of the court system.

  11. Margo/Mom said, “But then, after all, sorting out such disagreements is the function of the court system.”

    Exactly. But NOT to order schools or parents to DO anything, e.g., funding, busing, curriculum, etc.

  12. Ragnarok says:

    Margo,

    Looks like you feel that judges should meddle in these things even though they’re going to muck things up.

    Good to get that settled.

    Now to equity etc.

    “Nor should you, or anyone confuse that individual provision with getting together with a bunch of your better to-do-buddies [sic] and pulling down public resources through that public system that your [sic] withhold from others less well situated.”

    What on earth does this mean?

    I can choose to live where my children will get a good education, but not if others do the same? Or someone else can, but I can’t? Or none of us can?

    Hate to break it to you, Margo, but the public system is funded by all of us. We fund the alcoholics, the drunks, the druggies, the public servants (!), the unwed single mothers with five children by ten different men – and you decree that in addition to funding the above, we shall also sacrifice our children’s education on the altar of some imagined goal of equity?

    What cheek!

  13. “The federal government grants to the states the rights and responsibilities with regard to education…”

    Wrong in the most fundamental of ways. The federal government does not GRANT power to the states. The states are the general repository of sovereignty in this country: they, unlike the federal government, possess the police power, the unlimited sovereign authority inherited from Parliament upon independence. The federal constitution is a grant of enumerated powers to the federal government: it must find authority for whatever it does in that document. State constitutions, by contrast, are not grants of power: they are limitations on inherent power. A state need not find a specific grant of power in order to act: it may do anything it is not forbidden from doing, either by its own state constitution or by valid federal law.

    I’ve been in front of far too many black-robed tyrants to trust the courts with the degree of power they’ve gathered to themselves over time. Admittedly, the legislatures are often guilty of passing the buck to them in the deliberately ambiguous language of what the enact. But part of this too, at the state level, has been the fault of those who think turning state constitutions into laundry-lists of high-minded-sounding things is a good idea, all of which hands power to the courts from the political branches and undermines the very principle of self-government upon which this country was founded.

  14. Ragnarok says:

    “I’ve been in front of far too many black-robed tyrants to trust the courts with the degree of power they’ve gathered to themselves over time.”

    Huzzah!

  15. You know Margo/Mom it would help if you eschewed meaningless formulations that make you feel good. For instance:

    And I accept responsibility as a citizen for ensuring equal access to the public education, as well as any other fruits of democracy.

    It’s a neat turn of phrase to equate the public education system which despite all the rhetoric is meant to ensure disparity in funding with “other fruits of democracy”.

    What? Did you think all those zillions of ridiculously independent school districts were established to ensure uniformity in funding? Maybe people were too dumb to realize that independent taxing authorities might result in different levels of taxation way back before we had an Internet?

    No, funding disparities are part of the reason for the existence of public education. Without those disparities the political deal that made the establishment of public education possible simply wouldn’t have happened.

    Interestingly enough, it’s those funding disparities that maintain public support for the public education system to this day. Grosse Pointers may complain about their taxes but at least those taxes are going to, supposedly, education Grosse Pointe kids. See what happens to that support when their taxes go to pay for the education of Inkster’s kids.

    And you don’t even have to wait to find out. Texas, under a noble, black-robed potentate, decreed equal spending on education – what came to be called the “Robin Hood” decision – across the state. While they didn’t quite achieve that egalitarian nirvana the extent to which funding was shared disproportionately depressed the price of housing in wealthier areas.

    Richer folks were voting with their feet and since Texas wouldn’t let them spend what they thought they ought on their little darlings they chose to live elsewhere. If you think that merits a “let ’em eat cake” response, keep in mind that these are the highly-skilled people that are necessary to make an economy run. No head engineer? No assembly plant. No CFO? No company headquarters. Rich people are more mobile then poor people so if you decide to stick it to ’em to fund your notions of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, they’re liable to say “hasta la vista, baby”.

    Now what are you going to do? Set up barbed wire to keep them from splitting?

  16. Tracy W says:

    Margo/Mom, just because a constitution can specify something doesn’t mean that a constitution should specify something.

    The courts may be given the job of settling questions with regard to the constitutionality of the actions of the other branches of government, but that doesn’t mean that the courts can do a good job of setting all those questions.

    You appear to be muddling up what is with what should be. I am making, to use some jargon, a normative argument, not a positive one. To put this in plain language, I am talking about how the world should be, not how it is, (apart from where I pointed out that some countries supply public education without having a written constituion at all).

    So, when a group of citizens observes that with regard to the equal right to public education, some citizens are more equal than others, it is appropriate, by way of redress and holding the legislative branch accountable, to approach the court to make a decision.

    Margo/Mom, courts are staffed by lawyers and other legal type people. Experience in successfully running a public education system is not part of their selection criteria. So why do you think it is appropriate for citizens to approach the court to make a decision? If the constitution specified a right to healthcare, and you needed a heart operation would you really run down to your local judge and ask him to get out the scalpel? Should the courts have ruled on the wisdom of the D-day strategy in WWII?

    It strikes me as thoroughly implausible that we can stock the courts with people who are experts on everything.

    But then, after all, sorting out such disagreements is the function of the court system.

    Why do we have legislative bodies at all then?

  17. Margo/Mom says:

    allen raises some interesting and valid points. As Americans, we have often been schizophrenic when it comes to carrying out our stated ideals. At times this schizophrehia has been codified–such as in the case of Jim Crowe laws. The affairs of people are often messy. The crafting of the Constitution itself took multiple attempts as well as some compromises–such as the “peculiar institution,” not to mention the peculiar way in which slaves were treated with regard to accounting for population.

    When it comes to the division of powers, well, I will leave that as a philosophical question. Some would say that all rights are innate within the individual and that any government exists only with the consent of the governed. Our confederation, suffice to say, is arrived at through a document which aims to clarify which powers rest, or are granted, to the federal government and which remain within the purview of the states. States have further subdivided these (Constitutionally as a rule) between those responsibilities that fall to the state and those which remain local. I am aware of the one state–Hawaii–which holds the full responsibility for education. I am not so certain if there are states at the other end of the spectrum–that is where the full responsibility falls at the local level–but it seems as though there may be a New England state that has chosen this route.

    allen, I would not argue that the mess in which many states find themselves is the result of having allowed stratified systems of education to develop. Certainly at one point (WAY before the internet) there may have been a certain level of innocence as regards the level of diversity and the effects across society may have been minimal. As the need for education has become far more critical, to all, and urban areas reach out to bump up agains rurals and rurals turn into bedroom communities and suburbs, innocence of the reality is not longer believable. The post WWII housing boom, assisted by federal dollars, can certainly be implicated in the development of racially and socio-economically defined communities centered around a “public” school system.

    However, as the harm of such systems has become apparent, to those who are harmed, it has also become apparent that in many cases this violates the very basic
    Constitutional language that established/placed/allowed/ceded (whatever language) this responsibility at the state (as opposed to the local) level. And it our system Constitutional questions are decided by the courts. So far I have heard no one suggest an alternate system. Are judges educators? Perhaps not (although, I would suspect that many a judge has taught law classes at some point). However, when judges were called upon to rule on the Constitutionality of separate facilities for blacks and whites in interstate transportation, we didn’t need them to know how to drive a bus.

    If, as Tracy suggests, a patient was being unconstitutionally denied an equal right to health care–as has happened to be certain–the judge need not be a doctor to determine whether or not a patient has been denied access based on color or religion or some other constitutionally denied form of descrimination.

    While Hanusheck examines the worthy question of whether court rulies on school funding have resulted in improved achievement (and according to the article describing his book, the available evidence to work from is scanty–relying on NAEP scores disaggregated by race to compare rates of increase to national rates of increase, lacking in the ability to break out scores by income level, or by district), there have, in fact been other kinds of suits that did rely on educational outcomes in assessing compliance. These fall into the category of “opportunity to learn,” as opposed to equity of funding. I would say that outcomes-based expectations of education are (oddly enough) a fairly recent phenomenon, particularly in the legal realm. There was a hint of it in Brown v Board (in considering the psychological impact of segregation), but inputs have been considered far more frequently.

    It’s easy to say “judges shouldn’t be mucking around in education.” But again, I would throw out the question–by what mechanism ought the responsibilities for education (or anything else) be parcelled out? In place of a constitutional system of checks and balances–what system would be preferred? We are not dealing with the tendancy, here, to place laundry lists of good things (or not so good things) into Constitutions. We are dealing here with fundamental questions–language that in most cases has been there since inception.

  18. Tracy W says:

    If, as Tracy suggests, a patient was being unconstitutionally denied an equal right to health care–as has happened to be certain–the judge need not be a doctor to determine whether or not a patient has been denied access based on color or religion or some other constitutionally denied form of descrimination.

    You miss the point. What I was saying is that we can’t assume that judges know everything and are competent at everything. In the funding cases in question, it was not about being denied access based on colour or religion, the argued case was that *outcomes* were unequal and inadequate. To quote from the original story:

    Pointing to evidence of unacceptable student achievement outcomes, especially among poor and disadvantaged students,…

    Nothing in there about being denied access at all, so I take it the complaint was about outcomes.

    The courts may well be entirely competent at deciding whether or not a person has been denied access based on colour or religion or etc. I am not disputing that argument (although I reserve the right to dispute it in the future). What I am saying is that the courts have no particular competence at determining how to provide effective education or medical treatment. You have provided me with no reason to believe that the courts are any good at it.

    It’s easy to say “judges shouldn’t be mucking around in education.” But again, I would throw out the question–by what mechanism ought the responsibilities for education (or anything else) be parcelled out?

    By legislative bodies. They’re the ones full of politicians who are elected, and who can be not elected if the electorate thinks that their ideas are not working out. They’re the ones best placed to make the trade-offs between spending on education versus spending on healthcare versus spending on sewage systems versus lowering taxes, or not raising them. They’re the ones who decide which people to appoint to the top positions within the education bureaucracy. They may not be very good at it, but at least the election process provides some sort of feedback. Many people have criticised democracy over the years, but still it keeps coming back as the system of choice – most of the rich countries in the world which everyone wants to move to are democracies. To quote Winston Churchill:

    Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.

    The role of judges should be (note a normative, not a positive argument) to look at the process, like who gets to vote in elections and freedom of speech. Judges have no special competence at making complex trade-offs between different goods, nor do they have any special competence at creating various outcomes, and many of them are not subject to scrutiny by the election.

    We are not dealing with the tendancy, here, to place laundry lists of good things (or not so good things) into Constitutions.

    You may not be. But I jolly well am. After all my first comment on this thread was “This strikes me as an argument for strictly limiting what gets written into constitutions”.

  19. Ragnarok says:

    Margo, you’re still evading the core of the argument: Who’s to say that a man who’s able to give his children a better education than the child next door shouldn’t be allowed to do so?

    Are you saying that he should be allowed to do so, or that he shouldn’t? Your posts are difficult to follow – a simple Yes/No will be sufficient.

    If your answer is “No”, please tell me, what’s the point of extra effort? Why shouldn’t we all become welfare moms (or welfare dads)?

  20. Margo/Mom says:

    R–should the man next door be allowed to give his children a better education by being the biggest crack dealer on the block? What if he works REALLY HARD at it? Or suppose he shot up all the neighborhood kids, commandeered the local school and held all the teachers hostage in order to ensure that his kids had the best available?

    There are limits to everything. Should he be allowed to do everything legally allowed to ensure the best education for his children? Sure, why not.

  21. Ragnarok says:

    “R–should the man next door be allowed to give his children a better education by being the biggest crack dealer on the block?”

    This is just silly, don’t you think?

    I think, though, that you’ve shot your original argument in the foot. If it’s legal for him to live in a neighbourhood with better-funded schools than someone else, you have no objection. Right?

    But that goes against your earlier plaint.

    By the way, legality is a flexible and erratic concept. Surely you don’t dispute that?

  22. Margo/Mom says:

    “By the way, legality is a flexible and erratic concept. Surely you don’t dispute that?”

    Absolutely–which is why your insistence on a black and white answer to your question is getting you nowhere. Regarding the legality of better funded public schools for some, based on zip code (or whatever–sometimes it has been race or gender)–well this is exactly the kind of question that state supreme courts have been presented with.

    What is instructive about Hanushek’s suggestion, if it holds up, and I’m not so certain that it does–given the paucity of comparable data, is that funding equity does not necessarily bring about achievement equity. This is something that Hanushek has taken on before, in broader settings than that of court decisions. His general conclusion is that funding is, in fact, important, but only when considered within a model that takes into account a number of other factors–such as locus of decision-making, external accountability, teacher quality, etc. So those who advocate for equity in education–and this is by no means a new issue, the funding question being merely the latest salvo in a fight that goes back at least as far as Brown–need to bring to the table a host of other input issues, as well as presenting clear outcome measures.

  23. Tracy W says:

    Regarding the legality of better funded public schools for some, based on zip code (or whatever–sometimes it has been race or gender)–well this is exactly the kind of question that state supreme courts have been presented with.

    Margo/Mom, the complaint in question was about “unacceptable student achievement outcomes”, not about the inputs.

    And while we’re at it, for someone who worries about inequality in funding, you have a remarkably limited viewpoint. All around the world millions of children, through no fault of their own, are born into poor countries where their governments can only afford to spend a tiny fraction of OECD per pupil spending on education, even per-pupil spending in the poor parts of the US states, and many of those poor countries’ governments don’t even do that, being more distracted by military toys. After all, even the poorest American schools spend thousands of dollars per pupil (see page 5 of the pdf at http://www2.edtrust.org/NR/rdonlyres/31D276EF-72E1-458A-8C71-E3D262A4C91E/0/FundingGap2005.pdf, spending per pupil in the highest poverty districts are all above $4,000 per pupil)
    Meanwhile Thailand only spends $1,177 per pupil, see http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/edu_spe_per_sec_sch_stu-spending-per-secondary-school-student)and Thailand is one of the richer, better-managed poor countries.

    You said earlier to quote:

    The creation of an adequate and equitable system is heavily resisted in some quarters, however, by folks who have the resources to both purchase high-priced real estate, and to tax themselves heavily on it–so long as it benefits their own children more than others–and particularly so if it keeps their children at a distance from the disadvantaged ones.

    This anaylsis strikes me as equally applicable to cross-country inequalities. And the disaparities in spending are far bigger. So, to be consistent, you should be arguing for taking money away from all schools in the USA, and other rich countries, and redistributing across the world.

  24. Ragnarok says:

    Said Margo:

    “Absolutely–which is why your insistence on a black and white answer to your question is getting you nowhere.”

    Damn, you’ve hit me for six! What a fiendishly clever riposte!

    Or perhaps not. What’s the connection between legality and my asking you how you could possibly object to my giving my children the best education I can? Even if it’s better than that which some other kids get?

    At first you objected.

    Then you gave me this peculiar reply: “Nor should you, or anyone confuse that individual provision with getting together with a bunch of your better to-do-buddies and pulling down public resources through that public system that your withhold from others less well situated.”

    You could simply say “Yes, I object” or “No, I don’t object”. If the latter, the rest of your convoluted verbiage is revealed to be nothing more than the emperor’s new clothes.

    Less puffery, fewer appeals to motherhood and apple pie, and more clarity would all be good.

  25. Gotcha. Way back in the dim past, before people were as elevated and high-minded as some people are now sure they are, we were innocent children of nature unconcerned with the terrible consequences of differential funding for education. But now we’ve got the Internet which indicates we’ve transitioned to a higher plane of consciousness and education funding, at our higher plane of consciousness, must be uniform from state-border to state-border and probably sea to shining sea.

    Let me clue you in: we haven’t changed that much.

    Rich mommies and rich daddies still want to use what they have in abundance, money, to advantage their children. Deprive them of that option via glorious egalitarianism and you’ll find out that rich parents aren’t all that likely to simply shrug their shoulders and accept the same cost education for their kids as that gotten by the kids of poorer parents. I know that seems selfish but I’ve noticed that parents are like that about their kids.

    With that in mind, I think all that self-indulgent egalitarianism is simply peachy.

    Since its the certainty of differential funding that supports the public education system then Texas-like “Robin Hood” systems will wash away support for the public education system.

    It really is neat if you think about it.

    In a plot device worthy of a Greek tragedy the people who most ardently support the idea of public education are working diligently to create the situation necessary to bring public education to an end. Further, you’re constitutionally – I really like how well that word works in this context – incapable of confronting or even understanding the situation.