How does school funding affect student achievement? Still no settled answer to the question.

The Seattle Times poses the question this way: Will money for schools really help kids? Education reporter John Higgins writes that the state Supreme Court’s McCleary order that the state increase school funding by billions of dollars implicitly assumes that the money will make a positive difference in student achievement.

But the case presumes that more money will lead to a better education — and thus better college and life prospects — for every student in the state.

He further reports that the research is mixed on the relationship between funding and achievement. And he cites research that aims to redefine the debate. 

But a new study, recently published in a leading economics journal, used a fresh approach that found strong ties between spending and results, and may also explain why past studies failed to find a strong relationship between the two.

The research makes a bold – and still contested – claim (more below).

In short, the researchers found that students in districts with bigger windfalls did better, on average, than students from other districts in the same state that got less. They spent more time in school, for example, and had higher wages as adults.

Here’s the link  to the study abstract. The research is by Kirabo Jackson of Northwestern University and his co-authors, Rucker Johnson at the University of California, Berkeley, and Claudia Persico at Northwestern. And while Higgins reports that the authors “don’t claim to have the last word on spending and achievement,” they clearly want to influence legislative debate in statehouses across the country.

But Jackson says their study is important because it demonstrates long-term results and uncovers flaws in many past studies.

“If you have people going out there testifying to legislators that money does not matter and there’s no evidence out there that money matters, then it’s germane to the conversation,” Jackson said

The Times story does an excellent job of rehearsing the history of research on funding and performance. There’s more, though, to consider with specific reference to the Jackson, Johnson and Persico research. Referring to an earlier publication of their research, education reform authority Jay P. Greene writes,

…I find nothing to persuade me to abandon the long-standing and well-established finding that simply providing schools with more resources does not improve student outcomes.

Unsurprisingly – after all, we’re dealing with education research and economic analysis – the methodological arguments can be dense. We suggest you follow the links to get the full context. Greene focuses on the researcher’s treatment of court-ordered spending increases as somehow different from other changes in school funding and on the period when the increases took place. A bit on the latter point:

Second, Jackson, et al are examining the effect of court-ordered spending in the 1970s when spending levels in real terms were much lower and variation in spending across districts within states was much higher.  It’s quite a leap to think that more money now would have the same effect as then.

Economist Eric Hanushek also finds the new research unconvincing (the link is to a post in a series debating the analysis). It’s a spirited and informative exchange. Here’s the crux for Washington policymakers.

When proclaiming the importance of their causal estimates of the impact of school spending, there are no qualifications: “Our findings provide compelling evidence that money does matter, and that additional school resources can meaningfully improve long-run outcomes for students.” But, when interpreting their results for policy, they are much more circumspect: “Spending increases should be coupled with systems that help ensure spending is allocated toward the most productive uses” – a conclusion that is unrelated to their causal analysis but that reflects exactly the conclusion to which most people have come…

Jackson, Johnson, and Persico and I completely agree that just providing money is not sufficient for getting good results. The time series evidence shows that the existing incentives in schools have not produced consistently better results to go along with dramatically increased funding, even if some funds have been used effectively. We apparently disagree on the other half – the necessity of spending, but I fail to see how their analysis or other available evidence shows that more money is a necessary condition for improvement. It may or may not be necessary, but arriving at any conclusion on this depends on specific policies. We need to see the results of a set of policies that consistently improves achievement in order to assess whether (and how much) more funding is really necessary.

Similar points have been raised here, especially in this commentary by Robin Lake in The News Tribune. We also link to other, related concerns here. Funding, of course, matters. But it’s not all that matters. Policies still drive performance.