Money matters in education, as long as you spend it at the right time and on the right students

March 22, 2018

By David L. Kirp

Half a century ago, when sociologist James Coleman was tasked by the U.S. Department of Education with studying educational inequality, a good school was regarded as one that featured teachers with advanced degrees, a well-stocked library, state-of-the-art science labs and the like. The assumption was that these "inputs" were key to students' success. But the bottom line of the 737-page "Equal Educational Opportunity Survey," known as the Coleman Report, was dynamite. Families mattered most, schools mattered less — and extra resources didn't seem to matter much at all.

Battles over whether bigger school budgets can make a difference have raged since.

Those who say more money doesn't improve education point out that after five decades of K-12 funding increases, 17-year-olds' reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Student Progress, the nation's report card, haven't budged.

When economist Eric Hanushek, at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, reviewed some 400 studies in 1989, he found "no strong or consistent relationship" between bigger school budgets and greater student success. The focus on how much different school districts spend, in school finance litigation and legislative deliberation, he added, "appears misguided." In 2015, the Texas assistant solicitor general made the point more colorfully, arguing against more school funding in court: "Money isn't pixie dust."