Last week the Educational Testing Service published an important report, Mind the Gap: 20 Years of Progress and Retrenchment in School Funding, Staffing Resources, and Achievement Gaps, on why it is important for school districts to have sufficient funding and more specifically the ways in which funding matters most. The report’s authors are Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University and David Sciarra and Danielle Farrie of the Education Law Center.
The report is technical, but one is struck by its clarity and its plain good sense: “How much you spend in a labor intensive industry dictates how many individuals you can employ, the wage you can pay them, and in turn the quality of individuals you can recruit and retain. But in this modern era of resource-free school reforms, the connections between revenue, spending, and real, tangible resources are often ignored, or, worse, argued to be irrelevant… The primary resources involved in the production of schooling outcomes are human resources—or quantities and qualities of teachers, administrators, support, and other staff in schools. Quantities of school staff are reflected in pupil-to-teacher ratios and average class sizes. Reduction of class sizes or reductions of overall pupil-to-staff ratios require additional staff, thus additional money, assuming the wages and benefits for additional staff remain constant. Qualities of school staff depend in part on the compensation available to recruit and retain the staff—specifically salaries and benefits, in addition to working conditions. Notably, working conditions may be reflected in part through measures of workload, such as average class sizes, as well as the composition of the student population.”
The authors investigate several revenue-related issues over time and report that school revenues from state and local taxes grew on average between 4.5 and 5.5 percent between 1992 and the high point in 2008 and then, by 2012 fell back, on average, to the level of funding in 2000. As one might expect, “(S)tates with higher per pupil spending tend, on average, to have more teachers per 100 pupils, that is, on balance, across states, higher spending on schools is leveraged to increase staffing quantities.” Further, “(S)tates with more progressive distribution of current spending also had more progressive distribution of staffing; that is, in states where higher poverty districts are able to spend more per pupil than lower poverty districts, those higher poverty districts are able to leverage that spending to have more teaching staff per pupil than lower poverty districts.” “In other words, as one might expect, state aid and federal revenue can improve the progressiveness of current spending across districts within states. These relationships hold not only across states but also over time. When state aid and federal aid are increased, fairness generally increases… 20 years of data on all states (and all districts in them) validate that increased targeted funding to and spending in high-poverty districts within states lead to substantive increases in staffing ratios in those same districts leading to more progressive state educational systems in terms of both funding and staffing.”
The question everyone asks, of course, is whether these differences in spending and staffing affect test score outcomes and whether they close the so-called achievement gaps. The authors offer some caveats, most notably that “achievement levels of children from low-income and non-low-income families across states depend on the income levels of these families, and so, too, do the gaps.” In their research, the authors correct as well as they can for external variables. They explain that, “The analysis presented here validate the conclusion that variations in available revenues and expenditures are associated with variations in children’s access to real resources, as measured by the competitiveness of the wages paid to their teachers and by pupil-to-teacher ratios and class sizes….
- “States that apply more effort—spending a greater share of their fiscal capacity on schools—spend more generally on schools.
- “These higher spending levels translate into higher statewide staffing levels—more teaching staff per pupil.
- “These higher spending levels translate into more competitive statewide teacher wages.
- “Increased targeted staffing to higher poverty schools within states is associated both with higher measured outcomes of children from low-income families and with smaller achievement gaps between children from low-income and children from non-low income families.”
And finally, “(A)cross states, over the past decade and a half in particular, states with lower pupil-to-teacher ratios and fairer distribution of staffing tend to have both higher outcomes among children from low-income families and smaller (economic) achievement gaps…. We also have evidence that states in which teacher wages are more competitive have smaller achievement gaps and higher scores for children from lower income families. We can also show that the level and distribution of pupil-to-teacher ratios are highly and consistently sensitive, both across states and over time, to changes to the level and distribution of school district current spending; that is, more spending, holding other factors constant, drives lower pupil-to-teacher ratios, and fairer spending across districts within states drives fairer pupil-to-teacher ratios… States with higher spending have more competitive wages, all else being equal.”
The report basically proves that you get what you pay for, and if you want to close achievement gaps between poor children and their privileged peers, you should spend what you need to to ensure that the children living in the poorest communities get the added attention they need from highly qualified teachers.