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Behind a School Finance Lawsuit

In a recent article by education researcher Eric A. Hanushek (“The Cost of an ‘Adequate’ Education,” October 9, 2006 Wall Street Journal) we learn about the process behind the studies used in many states to determine how much school spending is necessary. Concerning New York, he writes this:

Unfortunately, in determining the cost of an “adequate” education, the court relied heavily on the questionable analysis of consultants hired by the plaintiffs. Their analysis, labeled a “professional judgment model,” was advertised as a scientific determination of the amount of spending necessary to secure an “adequate” education for every New York City student. Yet, this analysis violates virtually every principle of science and, as a result, has produced a politically saleable but scientifically unsupportable answer to the problem.

The consultants’ approach was to hire a series of New York school personnel to describe what a school that could meet the state’s learning standards would look like. These school people were told explicitly to pay no attention to where the money might come from. They should just dream. The fact that they did their dreaming after the court had declared New York’s funding formula to be unconstitutional gave an implicit legitimacy to any flights of fancy they might have. In addition, any recommendations they made would likely have a direct impact on their own schools, creating an inherent conflict of interest.

In the Augenblick & Myers study for Kansas, the term describing the methodology used is exactly the same. I can’t tell from reading the Augenblick & Myers study if the participants were to told to dream without regard as to where the money would come from, but why wouldn’t they be told that, and why wouldn’t they act that way?

Continuing with Dr. Hanushek’s article:

One would be hard pressed to overestimate the potential danger posed by these costing-out studies. Consultants are active in virtually every one of the adequacy cases in the nation. Even though they use a variety of methods to affix the dollar value of an adequate education, each clearly represents nothing more than junk science. Many courts are duped by the studies, perhaps not surprisingly given the politics of the cases. But the reality remains: Setting appropriate education funding amounts for New York, or any other state, is beyond the authority of science.

It is true that school funding decisions are made in the realm of politics. Parents of children — and everyone else, for that matter — should ask themselves if the education of children is too important to leave to the whims of politicians.

Dr. Hanushek makes the point that few in Kansas, certainly few newspaper reporters or editorial writers, seem to understand:

Nonetheless, it will be a hollow victory. Extensive experience and scientific study shows that simply providing more money to schools is not likely to be a very effective policy. There is no reason to expect student achievement in New York City to improve if such a spending policy were enacted. Indeed, the consultants in these adequacy cases are always very careful to avoid claiming that added funds will have any effect on student outcomes. Unfortunately the political paralysis created by these cases stops any consideration of more productive reforms. Instead of talking about performance incentives to districts and schools or linking funding to student outcomes, discussion is stymied by debates over how to raise the money and which districts will be hurt by any change in funding.

This is the case in Kansas. The school finance lawsuit and the skirmish between the Kansas Legislature and Kansas Supreme Court drown out any other discussion. Those who fought for more school spending bask in their victory, having saved the children of Kansas. For them, the issue is closed, the problem is solved — at least until a future study discovers the need for even more spending.

For the wellbeing of Kansas schoolchildren and everyone else in Kansas, I hope the extra spending helps. But experience and research, as Dr. Hanushek mentions, do not indicate that much good will come from the increased spending. In the meantime, as we wait to see if increased spending helps children, truly meaningful school reform is delayed, and the Kansas education bureaucracy grows.

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