During the 2001 legislative session, the Silver State’s lawmakers are unlikely to approve the Nevada State Education Association teacher union’s proposal for a business-profits tax. But the near-universal opposition to the union’s plan is ironic, since few—if any—legislators disagree with the justification offered for the new tax: the “need” to spend more money on Nevada’s government schools. Last week, Senator Ray Rawson, a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “To get schools that are above average, you have to pay above average.” In December, the Las Vegas Sun’s Jon Ralston wrote of Governor Guinn’s “obvious desire to increase education funding.” It appears that the notion that schools will improve through increased funding is firmly rooted in Nevada. Sadly, it’s perhaps the most persistent myth in American public policy, a falsehood which does great damage to the cause of meaningful education reform. Herewith, a brief overview of the conclusive proof that no link exists between increased spending and increased student achievement.
The Coleman Conclusion
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated a national study to document the different levels of educational resources devoted to black and white children. Professor James S. Colemen of Johns Hopkins University, who undertook the project, examined 4,000 schools, 60,000 teachers and almost 600,000 students. But rather than prove the link many suspected existed between inadequate educational resources and low student achievement, Coleman found that per-pupil spending, library books, “and a host of other facilities and curricular measures show virtually no relation to achievement if the social environment of the school—the educational backgrounds of other students and teachers—is held constant.” The report left no ambiguity about the role of spending and student performance: “The data suggest that variations in school quality are not highly related to variations in achievement of pupils.”
Sadly, politicians, social planners and the education establishment paid no attention to the Coleman Report. Convinced that increased funding to schools would solve every education problem—including achievement gaps between whites and minorities, and American students’ poor showing when compared to their counterparts in other countries—spending on government schools ballooned. In the 1980s and 1990s, America’s belief in big government began to wane, but the nation could not kick its addiction to ever-increasing education funding. (Last November, a CNN exit poll showed that voters—who presumably know more about public policy than non-voters—overwhelmingly thought more spending is the prescription for better schools.) The U.S. Department of Education reports that real per-pupil spending more than tripled between 1960 and 1996. Class sizes have shrunk, and compensation for teachers has soared. In addition, a recent study showed that the United States places third out of 22 developed nations in per-pupil spending.
Not Getting What We Pay For
Yet by any measure, America’s students are not performing better than they did in the 1960s—in fact, they’re probably doing worse. The Hoover Institution’s Eric Hanushek writes that between 1960 and 1995, “student performance has not improved, nor have U.S. students shown any improvement in international achievement tests.” In 1999, a National Bureau of Economic Research analysis found that from 1970 to 1995, math and science scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fluctuated, reading scores stagnated and writing scores actually declined. Over a third of American students received the lowest possible rank in all NAEP subjects: history, math, writing, reading, geography, and science. The latest international analysis revealed that the longer American children stay in government schools, the worse they perform in math and science. In 4th grade, Americans students are above the international average, but by 8th grade they score below average, and by their senior year in high school they perform even more poorly.
That’s little surprise, when one considers the SAT data. Average SAT scores dropped by 80 points between 1963 and the mid-1990s. There have been modest increases in the last few years, but that was to be expected, since the SAT was dumbed down in 1996 in order to stanch the bleeding. American education’s nosedive has begun to cause many observers worry about the nation’s economic future. According to a survey of U.S. manufacturers, 40 percent of all 17-year-olds do not have the math skills and 60 percent lack the reading ability to hold down a production job at a manufacturing company.
Spending in the Silver State
There is little disagreement over the severity of Nevada’s education deficit. SAT scores are flat. The state has the worst high school dropout rate in the nation—one which is double the national average. Nevada has a dismal college-continuation rate. Almost half of the freshmen in the state’s university system need remedial training in math or English. “We are last in so many things,” Governor Guinn recently lamented. “We need an educated workforce.”
But Nevada’s education problems are not due to inadequate funding. In a 1995 study, the Nevada Policy Research Institute revealed that state spending on education increased 194 percent between 1983 to 1992, while enrollment increased only 40 percent. This was a massive per-pupil increase of an inflation-adjusted 54 percent for the 10-year period, and spending continued to rise after 1992. According to Education Week, the Silver State now spends $5,717 per pupil, an amount only $691 below the national average of $6,408. Increasing the state’s per-pupil spending even further is unlikely to fix Nevada’s education woes. As one might guess from the statistics presented so far, when it comes to education, there are high-spending, high-performing states (Connecticut comes to mind), high-spending, low-performing states (New York is a good example), low-spending, high-performing states (such as Utah) and low-spending, low-performing states (for example, Arkansas).
While government schools and teacher-union officials continue to cry poverty—and politicians and the public continue to treat their claims at face value—it is clear that shoveling more money at government schools does nothing to help students. Fortunately, there are a myriad of effective reforms for Nevada’s lawmakers and education officials to consider instead. And these measures cost little, if any, additional tax revenue. Changes in instruction methods, such as a return to phonics-based reading, hold much promise. Restructuring the state’s needlessly rigid charter-school law will allow more creativity and innovation, and open the doors for parents, business people and education activists to set up alternative government schools. Merit pay for exceptional teachers is also worth considering. And moving toward privatization—such as vouchers for students trapped in the state’s worst-performing schools and tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools—would probably make the biggest difference. Nevada must face the harsh but inescapable reality that it is impossible for a state to spend its way to better schools. It’s time to look for other solutions to Nevada’s education deficit.