Spend Smart to Achieve Equity in Education

12/01/2016 10:51 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Politics, it is said, is all about who gets what. "What" is defined as money. Good people of all parties generally want to use government funding to improve peoples' lives. But is giving people more money the same as improving their lives?

In education, money is important. Improving education usually costs money. You can't make chicken soup out of chicken feathers, as we say in Baltimore. Further, inequalities in education funding between wealthy and disadvantaged districts within the same regions remain substantial. The children who need the most get the least, because education funding is usually tied to property taxes. Obviously, areas high in wealth can raise a lot more money with the same tax rate than can neighboring districts low in wealth. This is understood by all Americans as just the way of the world, but it is in fact anything but the way of the world. In fact, our system is so unfair and so unlike what happens in our peer nations that when I talk about it abroad, I have to explain it three or four times before my foreign friends can understand how any advanced country could do such a thing. In all other countries I know about, all schools receive equal funding, most often supplemented to help impoverished schools catch up. This has been true for decades, under right wing and left wing governments throughout the developed world.

I believe that equalizing school funding, and supplementing it for disadvantaged schools, is a moral responsibility, well worth fighting for. But will it solve the inequities in outcomes we see among our schools serving wealthy and disadvantaged neighborhoods?

This is a more complex question. But the simple answer is that for improving outcomes, there are better and worse ways to use money. We know a lot of proven strategies for turning money into achievement, and with modest continuing investment in the resources to help schools adopt and implement proven programs and in national R & D to create and evaluate proven programs, we could make substantial progress in reducing gaps and gaining on our international competitors. But if we expect that simply adding money to the current system will be sufficient, we are likely to be disappointed.

Spending is always a contentious issue. Spending smart should not be. Whatever we have decided to spend on education, we can all agree that every penny should count and the best way to ensure that money makes a difference is to use it on proven approaches.

Equalizing or even supplementing funding for high-poverty schools is the right thing to do, but we cannot just spend. We have to spend smart.