Beyond the Blame Game: Remote Schooling Was Predicted By Spending Adequacy
Our guest author today is Mark Weber, a member of the research team for the School Finance Indicators Database project. He is also the Special Analyst for Education Policy at the New Jersey Policy Perspective, and a Lecturer at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education.
It’s become an article of faith on the political right: teachers unions forced schools to go remote during the pandemic. But what if that’s not true? What if there’s actually more to the story?
In a new working paper, Bruce Baker and I consider another possibility: Schools that are inadequately funded were more likely to go remote in the 2020-2021 school year, the first full year after the pandemic hit. While we wouldn’t say that funding inadequacy was the sole cause of remote schooling, we do document a relationship between the two that calls into question the idea that unionization was the only or even primary reason for the loss of live schooling.
Those who’ve pushed the idea that union pressure caused schools to go remote rely on several recent studies (we cite these in our paper) that show a correlation between union presence and remote schooling. They often fail to mention, however, that several studies also show correlations between remote schooling and community political affiliation, Covid prevalence, and student race/ethnicity. It’s also important to note that these studies (like ours) are descriptive: none shows a direct, causal link between teachers unions and school district responses to the pandemic. In the absence of a clear causal relationship, and with other plausible explanations available, no one should state with certainty that teachers unions were the force that led to remote schooling.
Some of these studies attempt to control for school spending in their models, based on the premise that a school district’s fiscal capacity could affect its choice to go to remote or offer in-person instruction. There is good reason to believe school funding would influence district choices: districts were advised by health officials to carry out all sorts of mitigations before reopening their classrooms, such as spacing out classrooms, improving air flow, and implementing screening for staff and students (Honein et al. 2021).
All of these actions, which were necessary steps before reopening in-person, would require schools to spend more. So would “hybrid” models—mixtures of in-person and remote instruction—which would increase both technology and transportation costs as districts implemented multiple modes of instruction simultaneously.
And yet, despite these reasons to believe school spending would affect pandemic instruction, most studies have shown little correlation between the two; in fact, one shows that more spending led to an increase in the time spent in remote instruction (Houston and Steinberg 2022). There are, however, two problems with how these studies approached analyzing the relationship between the spending and pandemic schooling.
First, in several studies the measure of spending was too crude to accurately assess whether a correlation between spending and remote instruction exists. The Houston and Steinberg paper above, for example, used the spending in the largest district in a county as a proxy measure for every district. It’s well understood, however, that spending can vary significantly between districts that are near to each other.
Second, and more problematic: measures of school spending are not the same as measures of spending adequacy. Different school districts have different costs: they require different amounts of spending to meet a particular educational goal. Some districts are in labor markets with higher costs of living: they require more revenues to attract and retain qualified educators than districts in markets with lower labor costs. Some districts have more students living in poverty, which increases their costs compared to low-poverty districts. If you ignore how much districts need, and focus solely on how much they spend, you’re bound to draw bad conclusions. For example, some districts will seem like they’re awash in cash when in reality they’re struggling to meet their students’ needs.
School finance experts call the amount a district spends relative to its cost adequacy. Every district has an adequacy target: the amount it needs to meet a particular educational objective. The amount a district spends under or above its target is its adequacy. Although we cannot know for certain the “true adequacy target” for each district, we can use long-established empirical methods to estimate how much each would have to spend (to achieve a given student outcome goal). In the School Finance Indicators Database, for example, we set a modest objective: average national outcomes of math and English language arts tests. We then show how much more or less a district spends to meet this goal; this becomes our measure of adequacy.
Using these models, which were developed by my co-author Bruce Baker, we’re able to estimate the adequacy of spending for most school districts in the United States (check out this visualization to look up the results specific districts). Some districts spend well above their adequacy target; many spend well below it. We contend that district adequacy is the best measure to use when assessing a district’s fiscal capacity, and whether it’s associated with how they responded during the pandemic, because adequacy takes into account the fact that different districts have different costs.
So what did we find? The graph below tells the story: when a district spends more relative to its cost—i.e., when its spending is more adequate—it is less likely to offer virtual instruction. For every additional $1,000 spent by a district relative to its cost, it offered one less day of virtual instruction, and one more day of in-person schooling. We found a one standard deviation change in adequacy led to about 7.5 fewer days of virtual instruction. Our findings were statistically significant at a very high level of confidence (p<0.01).
To be clear: we can’t show a definitive causal relationship between spending adequacy and remote schooling: we can only show a descriptive link. Of course, to reiterate, that’s also true of the studies that show a link between teachers unions and remote schools. The likely truth is that the causes for remote schooling were complex and entangled: parents’ wishes, politics, Covid prevalence, and other factors probably all played a part.
But dismissing school districts’ fiscal capacity as a cause of remote schooling is as unwarranted as heaping the blame for it on teachers unions. We know that school spending adequacy matters when it comes to student outcomes; it’s only logical to assume it matters when it came to district responses to the pandemic. Anyone looking for reasons why schools went remote should include school spending adequacy as a likely factor.