WASHINGTON – Despite bipartisan pleas for more federal spending on education, a research group in Washington has found there’s no correlation between dollars and sense.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) recently released its eighth annual "Report Card" study on American schools, finding no correlation between money spent on education and student achievement.
"There’s an old saying that goes, ‘Don’t throw good money after bad,’" said ALEC’s 2001 National Chairman, state Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Tenn., in a written statement. "It’s less important to increase investments in education than it is to make the right investments in education."
The report, released last month, found that expenditures per pupil have increased nationwide by 22.8 percent in constant dollars over the past 20 years. That’s $5,087 per child in 1979 compared to $6,251 per child in 1999 – and yet standardized test scores didn’t change.
The Report Card found Iowa, followed closely by Minnesota and Wisconsin, had the top performing public elementary and secondary schools in the nation as measured by several standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT. Mississippi, Washington, D.C. and Louisiana ranked at the bottom of the ALEC scale.
For example, while the District of Columbia ranked fifth in terms of per pupil spending on education, it was 50th in academic achievement. And while New York ranked third in spending, at $8,860 per pupil, it was 31st in achievement.
Although some conservative groups agree with ALEC’s findings, teachers’ unions, President Bush and many in Congress do not, with all of them calling for more spending for schools.
Bush has proposed a 6 percent increase in funding on top of the $2 billion Congress set aside at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency for schools in fiscal year 2002. That’s about an 11 percent jump in education spending from last fiscal year.
"Very few people would say money doesn’t matter about their own child’s school," said Celia Lose, a spokeswoman at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). "It’s wrong to say it about the nation’s schools as a whole."
A policy analyst at the National Education Association (NEA) described the group’s agenda as conservative. ALEC identifies itself as a bipartisan, individual membership organization of state legislators and also professes a dedication to free markets, individual liberty and limited government.
"It’s a ham-handed analysis of what goes on in schools," said Michael Pons, the NEA education analyst. "Sometimes averages obscure reality. To say a dollar spent in Newark, N.J. is going to go as far and do as much as a dollar spent in Helena, Mont. obscures the facts."
But an education policy analyst at the conservative think tank Empower America said the study shows that common suggestions for how to improve schools – like reducing class size and increasing teacher salaries – don't mean students will learn more or improve academically.
"Measuring caring in dollar figures instead of by how well students are doing is a bad idea," said the analyst, Kevin Cherry. "Simply throwing money at the problem does not work. There needs to be real reform within the system."
Then how should policy makers use the ALEC study, if at all? The jury is still out. Pons believes it should be ignored. Cherry thinks it should be incorporated into state education plans. But both sides agree education money shouldn’t be tossed around haphazardly.
"No one is saying to throw money indiscriminately at schools," Lose said. "Targeted investments make a positive difference in student performance. They require adequate resources, but the payoff is worth it."