Money does matter in education, when spent on the right investments and when allocated in ways that respond more directly to need, according to public policy expert Rucker Johnson.
Last week, Johnson, associate professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, presented the findings of his work on the effects of fair funding and school finance reforms at City Hall in an event that was organized by the Education Law Center.
Johnson's work on school funding made headlines in the Washington Post last year.
The study, conducted by Johnson and his co-authors, found that among students graduating from low-income school districts, an increase in per-pupil funding of 10 percent throughout K-12 increased student’s adult earnings 13.4 percent by age 45. His research also found that school finance reforms have led to increases in high school graduation rates and academic proficiency.
“Actually, as a country, we spend quite a bit on average in education,” Johnson said at the event, “but our distribution and the inequality in spending across districts is undermining our ability to realize the longstanding ideal of equal educational opportunity.”
Johnson explained that this inequity is caused, in large part, by the “the historical reliance on the local property tax base to raise revenue for our local schools and the consistent residential segregation by both economic status and race.”
Deborah Gordon-Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, organized the event to raise awareness of the school-funding lawsuit that is now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The suit, brought by the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center, challenges how much the state contributes overall to education and how the money is distributed.
Johnson’s talk touched not only on K-12 funding, but also on the importance of investing in early childhood education and other programs targeted to the youngest children and their families.
His research, which went all the way back to the original Head Start program in the 1960s, also found that half the “achievement gap” among students from high-poverty and low-poverty backgrounds is apparent before kindergarten. Investing in early education and other supports during those early years through a coordinated strategy yields big dividends, his research found.
Johnson said that a 10 percent increase in K-12 spending throughout all age groups yielded an average of an 8 percent increase in the likelihood of low-income students graduating from high school. But if that K-12 spending was preceded by access to high-quality preschool, students' chances of graduating increase by almost 16 percent.
“Our solutions to the achievement gap have been fragmented," he said. "When we have a health gap, we focus on health care. When we have an academic gap, we focus on some dimension of the school climate. But what we have to understand is that these developmental processes are not happening in isolation – they’re working in concert, and that’s why they require solutions that are connected.”
Johnson examined data from 12,000 students and compared 4-year-olds eligible for Head Start in its first year with those born too early to qualify. He found that the Head Start students did better, especially those who experienced the program when it had a temporary $1,000 per-child increase.
The “fade-out” of gains made in Head Start by 4th grade, often cited by critics of the program, is due to inadequate funding in the schools that students subsequently attend, he said, not to the Head Start program itself.
Johnson said that one of the reasons that Head Start was effective is that it seeks to address more than just academics. It has also been responsible for hundreds of thousands of eye exams, dental visits, and polio and measles vaccines.
“It was ... a nutrition program and it provided health and developmental screenings – even dental and mental health services,” Johnson said. “It affected the curriculum by enhancing literacy, reasoning, problem-solving, decision-making skills, and provided help for parenting strategies. It’s a combined holistic approach.”
One of the major initiatives of Mayor Kenney's administration is expanding preschool, and Gov. Wolf is also proposing more spending on early childhood education.
“Not only do preschool investments matter, not only do the K-12 investments matter, but in combination, they matter much more than the sum of their individual parts,” Johnson said.
Gordon-Klehr said, “A funding formula is only as good as the dollars sent through it.”
The lawsuit that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is considering was brought on behalf of six school districts, several parents, and two civil rights organizations. It charges that the new funding formula passed by the legislature earlier this year is insufficient because it applies to only a small fraction of education aid.
If the new formula were applied to the state’s entire $5.8 billion education budget instead of just new spending, low-income districts such as Philadelphia's would see a significant increase in per-pupil spending, as would the districts that are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Johnson found that the most extreme increases in per-pupil spending had dramatic effects on the achievement gap. If the spending increase was constant from Head Start through 12th grade, “the effect of a 20 percent increase ... was to reduce the disparities in adult outcomes between children born to poor and non-poor families by at least two-thirds,” Johnson said. “An instrument that can close gaps of that magnitude cannot be neglected.”
One of Johnson’s most important findings was that increases in per-pupil spending have the ability to close the high school graduation gap – the difference between the likelihood of a low-income student graduating from high school and the likelihood of their middle-class peers graduating.
Johnson studied school finance reforms implemented over the last several decades across 46 states to find what reforms are most effective. He said the concept of school finance reform has two major goals: to make sure all districts have what they actually need to educate their particular students and to account for the differences in districts’ ability to cover those costs through local revenue.
The first goal seeks to address that in “districts that have a high proportion of concentrated poverty, high proportions of English language learners, high concentrations of special needs [students], the cost of providing an adequate educational opportunity for all children is much higher,” Johnson said. Reaching this goal would almost certainly mean that “the state aid formula would … have a progressive nature that would allocate more resources to those that are in greater need.”
He said that the second goal “is about recognizing that because of these significant differences in property tax wealth, the highest-poverty districts are actually facing the greatest tax burden.” Despite paying a larger percentage of their property value in taxes each year, poor districts still raise far less money this way because their property values are so much lower.
A progressive funding formula wouldn’t just attempt to equalize per-pupil spending. It would actually ensure the highest per-pupil spending goes to those districts with the highest rates of poverty, special needs students, and English language learners, recognizing that these students need more resources than students from affluent districts to have the same chance of graduating high school and attending college.
Some states, such as Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio, and California have already adopted progressive funding formulas. Johnson calls Pennsylvania’s formula “regressive,” shown by the fact that the state has the worst funding disparity between rich and poor districts in the country.
“Here in Pennsylvania, the quality of your education depends on your zip code,” Gordon-Klehr said.
A 2007 costing out study to determine what resources schools and districts need to educate their students found that 474 districts did not have high enough per-pupil spending to achieve 100 percent proficiency in reading and math.
This adequacy gap “was largest in the highest-poverty districts,” Johnson said, before displaying a chart of his own that uses more recent data. In the 24 highest-poverty districts, the gap between what they had and what they needed was 26 percent. In Philadelphia, it was almost 48 percent, he said.
Cuts in education aid imposed by former Gov. Tom Corbett starting in 2011 hit poorer districts harder because the whole funding system is so regressive, Johnson said. Funding was cut by at least $700 per pupil in 29 districts with student poverty rates approaching 60 percent, while low-poverty districts showed little change.
“There’s no way to deal with that cut without teacher layoffs, which leads to class-size increases,” Johnson said. “It’s not just the level of funding, but the stability of that funding, and the instability of that funding can thwart educational outcomes, particularly for poor families.”
Johnson also found that inadequate per-pupil spending disproportionately impacts minority communities, even when controlling for poverty levels.
Johnson strongly supported the pending lawsuit on Pennsylvania school funding.
“This is an era in which the returns on education and a high-quality education have never been greater,” Johnson said. “The current state aid formula, in the last six to nine months, has made strides in a positive direction, but the overall situation is not one of positive comparison. Pennsylvania is among the most regressive school finance systems.”
The lawsuit centers on the interpretation of Article 14 of the state constitution, which reads: "The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”
“If we are successful in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, we will then go back to Commonwealth Court to have a trial, where we will show that the legislature has failed its constitutional obligations,” Gordon-Klehr said. “An important outcome of the suit’s success will be the creation of a constitutional school-funding system that will enable all students to have the resources they need to meet state academic standards.”
If they succeed, the new formula would fall into a category that Johnson describes as “court-ordered school finance reform.”
Johnson’s research found that these reforms, on average, “were associated with a roughly $1,000 increase in per pupil spending for the lowest spending districts, and we saw that lead to a significant narrowing of spending disparities in rich, affluent districts relative to poor districts.”
“We have to seize this moment in Pennsylvania education policy to reclaim and recapture the promise of educational opportunity for all children,” Johnson said. “We cannot wait. This is not something that our children can afford to miss out on.”