Proponents of increased spending on public schools often describe funding adequacy studies as objective and scientific. They are neither. Study estimates of “adequate” education funding amounts vary widely across states and by method used, even when made by the same contractor.
Augenblick, Palaich and Associates (APA), the most prolific of several groups conducting this type of study for a fee, released its latest for the Nevada Legislature in August 2006. APA recommends doubling public expenditure on Nevada’s public schools.
Funding adequacy studies are often used to precipitate lawsuits. However, Nevada’s Constitution — unlike those in other states — contains no language that would support an“adequacy” justification. Moreover, by some measures, Nevada maintains the most equitably funded school system in the country, lending no support for a suit on “equal opportunity” grounds either.
The education standards movement and, more recently, the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act play into the funding adequacy drama. If states require that students and schools meet specific performance targets, it is argued, states should provide “adequate” resources for meeting those targets.
APA chiefly employed two estimation methods — the “successful schools” and “professional judgment” approaches. Both are simplistic and produce unreliable results. With the former method, APA relied on a three-year trend in test scores to judge school success and ended up selecting a disproportionate number of magnet schools and schools labeled “in need of improvement” under NCLB criteria. The latter method asked panels of teachers and school administrators how much money they needed in order to be successful in meeting standards. Not surprisingly, they estimated high.
These estimation methods rest on three assumptions: educators bear no conflict of interest when estimating their own resource needs; legislators will (and should) implement the funding recommendations of the panels exactly as the panels prescribe; and a one-to-one correspondence exists between education spending and student achievement.
In cases of extreme deprivation — in some very poor countries, for example — the correlation between spending and achievement can be rather high. Given the current structure of United States school systems, however, researchers have difficulty finding any correlation between spending and achievement. The most optimistic estimates claim a correlation of 0.1, meaning a doubling of education spending could be expected to increase student achievement by just 10 percent.
A vast research literature on effective schools reveals that the key features leading to improved student achievement are related not to money, but to the quality of school management and leadership.