The Corner

Politics & Policy

Throwing Money at Educational Disparities

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report today entitled “Public Education Funding Inequity in an Era of Increasing Concentration of Poverty and Resegregation.” The gist of the report is, “spend more money. Lots.”

This novel and groundbreaking recommendation is somewhat undermined by the fact that per-pupil yearly expenditures in constant 2015-2016 dollars have increased from $496 in 1919-1920 to $11, 011 in 2013-2014. Even taking into account increases in enrollment and curricula, it’s difficult to argue that the average contemporary American student’s academic performance is 22 times better than that of his 1919 counterpart. Indeed, in some respects, it’s inarguable student performance has gotten worse. Indeed, just since the United States began administering the National Assessment of Education Progress in 1971, per-pupil spending has more than doubled, but the reading and math scores of 17-year-olds have remained essentially flat. Any NAEP gains made among younger students evaporate by the time they graduate from high school.

According to the Commission’s report, “school districts spend an average of $11,066 on each student each year,” but “the highest poverty districts receive an average of $1,200 less per-pupil than the lowest-poverty districts, and districts serving the largest numbers of students of color receive about $2,000 less per student than districts who serve fewer students of color.” Okay. But if more than doubling per-pupil expenditures since 1970 has made almost no difference in NAEP scores, an extra $1,200 or $2,000 per pupil per year won’t make much of a difference. In fact, some of our panelists stated as much. One witness opined that low-income students needed to receive 150 to 200 percent as much per-pupil spending as more affluent students. It’s simply not financially feasible to double per-pupil spending — and history suggests that doing so would accomplish little.

What my fellow commissioners (with the laudable exception of Commissioner Gail Heriot) and the progressive panelists studiously avoided saying was that lack of school funding isn’t the primary problem facing these students. Not by a long shot. All the talk of the need for additional meal programs and aftercare programs and wraparound services and counseling services and paying teachers more for working in “challenging environments” obscures what almost everyone is too politically correct and polite to say: The bigger problem facing many of these children is that they come from dysfunctional, chaotic homes headed by an unmarried parent. Government is good at throwing money at problems, but it has a dubious track record at improving families.

My full dissent is available here.

The report is available here.

Peter Kirsanow — Peter N. Kirsanow is an attorney and a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

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