New Education Next Forum: Is There a Connection between School Spending and Student Achievement? Should Courts Decide?

U. S. Supreme Court decision puts issue on front burner for states.

July 2, 2009

Eric Hanushek, Hoover Institution, (650) 736-0942
Michael Rebell, Columbia University, (212) 678-4144

STANFORD — With the U.S. Supreme Court expressing skepticism that dollars alone can remedy student achievement gaps in Horne vs. Flores late last week, the debate over the appropriate role of the courts in determining state school funding levels has heated up.

In a close decision in a case involving English language learners, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision concerning the equality of educational opportunities of Arizona students who face language barriers. The federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 requires each state to “take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in instructional programs.” The lower court called for increased funding of language programs in Arizona, but the Supreme Court noted that its concentration on incremental funding was inappropriate. Citing research evidence about the lack of a relationship between spending and educational outcomes and about the ineffectiveness of previous court-mandated funding, the Supreme Court said that the lower court should also consider other school programs.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing the majority opinion, cited the work of education economist Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, who has long been critical of the role the nation’s courts have played in this issue. In the dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer cited the work of Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The debate between the two policy analysts, which appears to have influenced both majority and minority opinions of the court, is presented in the upcoming issue of Education Next. It is available online at Here’s a sampling:

Eric Hanushek, joined by nationally recognized school finance lawyer Alfred Lindseth: Since about 1970, the achievement levels of U.S. students on the reading and math tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have remained largely flat despite massive financial and other efforts to improve them. The problem is particularly acute for poor and minority students, with the average black and the average Hispanic student lagging three or four grade levels behind the average white student.

The solution we need lies in performance-based funding: a system of integrated education policies and funding mechanisms designed to drive and reward better performance by teachers, administrators, students, and others involved in the education process. Such a system will ensure more effective use of education dollars through better decision making, will eliminate perverse incentives that reward mediocrity or failure, and most important, energize and will motivate those involved in the education of our young people.

The path to such reform will not be an easy one. While elements such as state standards, accountability measures, and value added measures are gaining acceptance, other important components, especially performance-based pay and increased choice options, are opposed by powerful forces — such as the politically connected teachers unions — with vested interests in the current system.

Michael Rebell: Extensive inequities in education funding, by which students with the greatest needs receive the fewest funds, still prevail in many parts of the United States; for that reason, state courts continue to have a critical role in ensuring meaningful educational opportunities for all children. The evidence strongly indicates that money well spent does make a significant difference in student achievement.

What is most likely to fulfill the promise of improved student outcomes in the future is not any silver bullet remedy, but rather a pragmatic process that allows courts, legislatures, state education departments, and school districts to work collaboratively to focus on children’s needs and to implement meaningful reforms on a sustained basis.

The courts’ role in this process is to outline in general, principled terms the expectation that the legislative and executive branches will develop challenging standards, fair and adequate funding systems, and effective accountability measures, but to leave to the programs and the political branches the full responsibility for actually formulating these policies.

Read “Many Schools Are Still Inadequate — Now What?

Eric Hanushek is the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University and a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. Alfred Lindseth is Of Counsel with the law firm of Sutherland, Asbill and Brennan. Michael Rebell is the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University .

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Caleb Offley, Project Manager
Office of Public Affairs
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-6010 (585) 319-4541

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