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Posted at 10:02 AM ET, 01/06/2012

Report: Does money matter in education?

The answer to the often-debated question — Does money matter in providing a quality education? — is yes, according to a new report that reviewed research on the subject.

To someone not steeped in school reform debate, the answer might seem obvious: Of course money matters. High-quality teachers, resources and buildings take money. (Tangentially, would anybody listen to Bill Gates on school reform if he weren’t a billionaire?)

Yet it has become popular among some school reformers to argue that money isn’t really the issue. They say that public spending on education has risen dramatically in recent decades but that the United States has still fallen behind other countries on international assessments.

This argument (which ignores the fact that American students in low-poverty schools score as high as any other country on those international exams) is, not surprisingly, offered up when education budgets are slashed as they are now across the country, including in the Washington region. (Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) said last fall to justify cuts: “We’re spending a lot of money on education, and when you look at the results, it’s not great.)

Bruce Baker, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University in New Jersey, reviewed research on the subject. In this report released Friday by the nonprofit Albert Shanker Institute in Washington, concluded that money matters in improving the quality of schools in several important ways.

Of course, money by itself is not the answer (there is no single answer to improving schools). And it’s not just how much money is spent but how it is spent. But the argument that money doesn’t matter and that across-the-board budget cuts won’t hurt student outcomes are not based in any evidence, Baker found.

Baker looked at evidence through the prism of these questions:

*Are differences in aggregate school funding associated with differences in short- and long-term measured outcomes?

*Are differences in access to specific schooling programs or resources — such as smaller classes, high salaries and instructional materials --associated with differences in measured outcomes?

*Do substantive and sustained reforms to state school finance systems, including raising the level of funding or redistributing money more equitably, lead to improvements in the level or distribution of student outcomes?

The answer to each is yes, he said.

Baker traces the origins of the counterargument (that money doesn’t matter) to a study by Stanford University researcher Eric Hanushek in 1986 that concluded, “There appears to be no strong or systematic relationship between school expenditures and student performance.”

Baker writes: “This single quote, now divorced entirely from the soundly refuted analyses on which it was based, remains a mantra for those wishing to deny that increased funding for schools is a viable option for improving school quality.”

More recent attempts to dismiss the importance of funding in making schools better have connected increased spending to stagnant standardized test scores. But this argument is terribly weak.

For one, overall student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes called the nation’s report card, shows that scores for subgroups such as African American students actually rose over time as school spending increased and achievement gaps narrowed.

None of this means that a lot of money is not wasted and could be put to better use. It is and it could. That’s not the same as saying money doesn’t matter. That the issue has been debated for so long is bizarre.

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By  |  10:02 AM ET, 01/06/2012

 
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