Money for Nothing

With newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa making school reform one of his key agenda items, and with education dominating the budget struggle in Sacramento, it’s worth examining why the education debate usually centers on an emotional struggle over cash rather than actual reform.

In his speech to the National Education Association (NEA) a few days ago, Villaraigosa said, “Don’t think that this effort to make our schools the best that they can be will come cheap. That’s ludicrous, that’s snake-oil salesmanship.”

He’s espousing a view long held by unions, including the NEA and the California Teachers Association. But the truth is that dramatically increasing classroom funding in the United States has proved surprisingly irrelevant.

California is at the middle in per-pupil funding in the United States. The state spends roughly $7,500, plus more than $2,000 pours in from federal and other sources. There’s no funding “disaster” facing California schools, despite claims by state Schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell.

By comparison, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a handful of states spend more than $11,000 per pupil (plus the federal cash). Yet there isn’t a shred of evidence that the vast expenditures in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey have raised student achievement.

Student achievement in California is improving, year after year, while states whose schools are comparatively awash in cash often show no improvement at all.

One of the worst school districts is Washington, D.C., which spends more than $12,000 per child (plus federal money). Children in the Los Angeles Unified School District are demonstrably gaining against children in Washington, D.C. This is fascinating because, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, nearly 50 percent of L.A. children are learning English as a second language, while only about 11 percent of Washington, D.C., children are learning English as a second language. Yet L.A. students do better on their English tests than D.C. students, despite the lavish sums spent in D.C.

Similarly, huge expenditures per child did not help Kansas City after a judge became convinced that money could turn schools around. He made Kansas City schools among the best-funded in the nation. Student achievement went nowhere.

Despite stereotypes about rich kids, there’s no evidence that private schools, which produce better-educated students, spend more money than public schools. Even in Los Angeles, many private elementary schools charge annual tuitions of less than $6,000. (Jewish day schools typically cost more, about $12,000 a year for elementary school.) Moreover, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, private schools pay their teachers significantly lower salaries than public schools.

California’s public school teachers are the highest paid teachers in the nation, according to NEA. Yet Hoover Institution researchers say that extra cash doesn’t buy much: California teachers have surprisingly little background in basic schoolroom subjects like math and history.

Nobody is certain how much money private schools spend per pupil. The data is not public. However, some Harvard researchers believe that private schools actually spend less per pupil than public schools, because they pay their teachers less and employ minuscule bureaucracies, compared to bureaucracies.

A recent Public Policy Institute of California poll showed that Californians support more funding for schools, agreeing with the Villaraigosa view that funding is the key to fixing schools. However, it’s worth noting that when parents actually “vote with their feet,” levels of school funding are not paramount in their minds.

Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who has also been an active public school parent, noted that in a 1997 survey of the Los Angeles Jewish population, parents were highly aware of which L.A. public schools were good and which were not. The deciding factor was student achievement and high test scores. As Phillips noted, because public schools are so bad, among Jewish students in the 1997 study, “Only half of urban kids (i.e., not Valley or South Bay) in LAUSD zip codes actually attend LAUSD.”

By contrast, in the San Fernando Valley, where public schools get the same amount of cash per child as urban Los Angeles schools, yet tend to produce far better test scores, two-thirds of Jewish children were enrolled publicly. “That’s a big difference compared to urban L.A.,” Phillips noted.

Parents seem to understand that once a basic level of funding had been reached, the real issue is whether a school uses its money to boost student achievement or spends the money poorly.

A debate rages over why private schools — which frequently have less money to spend per student than public schools — produce better-educated children. Some argue that private school parents care more about learning, and that private schools don’t allow misbehaving students to manipulate the system.

Those and other arguments are probably right. But despite what Villaraigosa professes, and what teachers unions have long insisted, years of mounting evidence continue to suggest that these troubles cannot be resolved — or even very much improved — by pouring in more money.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at