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A Myth Grows In The Garden State

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s recently announced a new "fairness funding" plan to provide every school district in his state roughly the same amount of per-pupil state funding. This would represent a huge change from the current system, in which more state funds are allocated to the districts that serve a larger proportion of economically disadvantaged students. Thus, the Christie proposal would result in an increase in state funding for middle class and affluent districts, and a substantial decrease in money for poorer districts. According to the Governor, the change would reduce the property tax burden on many districts by replacing some of their revenue with state money.

This is a very bad idea. For one thing, NJ state funding of education is already about 7-8 percent lower than it was in 2008 (Leachman et al. 2015). And this plan would, most likely, cut revenue in the state’s poorest districts by dramatic amounts, absent an implausible increase in property tax rates. It is perfectly reasonable to have a discussion about how education money is spent and allocated, and/or about tax structure. But it is difficult to grasp how serious people could actually conceive of this particular idea. And it’s actually a perfect example of how dangerous it is when huge complicated bodies of empirical evidence are boiled down to talking points (and this happens on all “sides” of the education debate).

Pu simply, Governor Christie believes that “money doesn’t matter” in education. He and his advisors have been told that how much you spend on schools has little real impact on results. This is also a talking point that, in many respects, coincides with an ideological framework of skepticism toward government and government spending, which Christie shares.

The reality, of course, is far more complicated. Based on decades of strong evidence about the relationship between education spending and performance (See Baker [2015] for a recent review), it is fair to say that money matters a great deal, that things that cost money improve performance, and that the distribution of funding affects outcomes. Yet it’s also true that adequate spending is a necessary—but not sufficient—condition for educational success. In other words, more spending in and of itself may have no impact; it all depends on how the money is spent.

This fair characterization of the literature, in many circles, gets distorted to “money doesn’t matter” at all – i.e., that you can spend all you want, but you will never get better results. Governor Christie (and he is far from alone) has taken this distortion to a deeper level: You can actually cut funding, even dramatically, and that will not matter either. In fact, based on his comments about the proposal, he may even believe that poor districts can have their state funding decimated, and that will not only not hurt them, but may actually result in improvement.*

No serious educational scholar would support this view.

Fortunately, there seems to be strong consensus that this proposal is a bad idea.

Yet there is a more general lesson here, albeit an obvious one, about the relationship beween research and policy: Even putting aside the fact that the "money doesn't matter" argument is incorrect, all of us need to be careful when reducing bodies of evidence down to unambiguous bullet points, and when mapping those conclusions onto policy implications (and, again, this goes for all “sides” of the education debate). 

To be clear, this is not to say that every characterization of "the research" on a given topic must include every exception and caveat, and should always avoid drawing firm conclusions. That defeats the purpose of accumulating evidence. It is also annoying. There is human judgment entailed in summarizing bodies of research. Different people can -- and often do -- draw different conclusions from the same body of work. This is not because "you can make evidence and data support any point of view" (a refrain of those who can't judge research on its merits), but rather because, put very crudely, reality and its measurement are messy.

So, again, this is hardly an original idea, but it behooves all of us to be careful about making or repeating overly simplistic statements that, for example, a given policy "works" or "doesn't work" without providing at least some nuance about issues such as effect sizes, external validity, and which outcome(s) upon which it does or doesn't "work." The relationship between research and policy is rarely smooth, but like all relationships, it requires strong communication.

*****

* Governor Christie also argues that the poorest NJ districts spend a smaller proportion of their local revenue on education, compared with the average district in the state, which he blames on “bloat.” This implies that cutting state revenue would compel districts to reallocate their funds to education. This is a somewhat strange argument – property tax revenue in poorer districts is, of course, much lower than in more affluent districts, which is a big reason why state education funding is progressive. If state funding is reduced substantially, poor districts could not make up the difference via reallocation, and would require large increases in local tax revenue.

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Comments

Christie's school funding proposal is awful for the reasons you outline, but I think that he is correct in his opinion that the NJ Supreme Court "overcorrected" in the Abbott decisions. If you compare academic performance in the Abbotts with equally poor (or nearly as poor) non-Abbotts who have per student opex budgets that are 50%-60% as high as the Abbotts, inferior facilities, and usually no Pre-K, the Abbotts do not outperform their fiscally disadvantaged non-Abbott peers. The results should be surprising to even someone who is skeptical about spending in general, but even the most financially crippled districts in New Jersey, like East Newark, Dover, and Fairview, outperform the Abbotts who are above Adequacy. Dover, in fact, is academically higher performing than any Abbott even though it spends only $10,600 per student. Christie, unfortunately, made a stupid mistake in comparing Abbott district schools to Abbott charter schools, but had he compared Abbotts to equally poor non-Abbotts, his argument would have been very tough to dismiss. http://njeducationaid.blogspot.com/2016/07/abbott-spending-has-been-ineffective.html http://njeducationaid.blogspot.com/2016/07/the-unsung-excellence-of-dover.html I'm aware that there is research out there that claims that the Abbotts do in fact outperform their non-Abbott demographic peers, but what this research shows is that for a ~50% spending advantage, the Abbotts do about 5% better. (I'm summarizing) That's hardly a strong argument for maintaining Abbott. I believe that money does matter, but the amount the Abbotts spend is beyond the point of effectiveness and since NJ's finances are increasingly limited, the money going to the Abbotts comes at the expense of equally poor and working class non-Abbotts. That's not fair or progressive.

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