Can Better Education Be Bought?
(Public Education in Pennsylvania)
Date: Fri, 12 Jul 2002
By Matthew J. Brouillette

There are few things in this world that $17,438,840,000 cannot buy. Yet it seems that nearly every week some organization that financially benefits from the public schools is rallying at the state capitol in Harrisburg claiming that a $10,400 average per-pupil expenditure is simply not enough to educate Pennsylvania’s children.

This past March, for example, more than 50 superintendents and school board members converged on Harrisburg threatening to increase local property taxes if legislators failed to come up with an additional $200 million more in state funding this year, on top of a proposed increase of $52.5 million. Despite decades-long annual increases greater than the rate of inflation -regardless of performance — the demand for more money by the public school establishment remains insatiable.

But even if policy makers were able to grow “money trees” along the Susquehanna River, would more dollars actually produce more scholars?

The growing body of scholarly research demonstrates that there is little correlation between increased spending and improved academic achievement. In Pennsylvania, the most recent addition comes from the independent analysis of the respected Wall Street firm Standard & Poor’s (S&P’s School Evaluation Services database can be accessed

The S&P report makes plain that higher per-pupil spending does not lead to higher test scores, as measured by the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment’s “Mean Composite Scores.” The most recent data set available on Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts reveal that 90 districts spent above the state average in 2000, yet produced below- average scores on state tests. The data also identified 130 districts with below-average spending and above-average scores on the state tests. So much for the theory that a good education can be bought.

Lest anyone believe that district performance can be determined by poverty rates, Standard & Poor’s also found more than 20 districts with above-average student poverty rates and above-average scores on state tests. Fifty school districts had below-average poverty rates and below-average test scores.

Central Greene School District in Greene County is one district that achieved above-average scores for three consecutive years from 1997- 99, despite having a well above-average proportion of low-income students. Superintendent Donald Painter told the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette that the key is that everyone — including administrators, teachers and parents — takes responsibility for mastering the basics. “We don’t make any excuses,” said Painter. “We don’t believe that money is the most important resource. We think that time is the most important resource we have.” If only more school districts would take such a “no-excuses” approach.

On the other end of the spectrum is Farrell School District in Mercer County. Farrell students have consistently scored below the state average on test scores (7th percentile) while spending more than $13,300 per student in 2000. By contrast, Farrell spent 51 percent more than Central Greene. Further contrast Farrell with the Solanco School District in Lancaster County that posted scores in the 75th percentile, yet Farrell outspent Solanco by 95 percent! It is true that these districts serve very different student bodies, but it is hard to believe that $13,300 per student is not enough to get the job done.

The dollars-equals-scholars myth is further dispelled when one looks beyond the government sector schools and considers the educational return found in the private sector. Take, for example, the four kindergarten through 8th-grade Catholic schools supported by the Extra Mile Education Foundation ( in Pittsburgh. Holy Rosary, St. Agnes, St. Benedict the Moor, and St. James schools educate approximately 850 predominantly African-American inner-city children, of which 95 percent are non-Catholic. Despite a student body where 63 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches (a measurement of poverty) and 60 percent come from single- parent homes, the schools boast a 96 percent high school graduation rate and send more than 88 percent of these students on to further learning.

So what is the average cost to educate each of these children? Well, put one way, the Farrell School District spent 280 percent more per student in 2000. The average cost to educate a child at an Extra Mile school is a meager $3,500. Families pay tuition of $1,280 with the difference being made up through philanthropic means. High poverty and expenditures that are nearly 50 percent lower than the lowest spending public school districts in the state makes one wonder if these schools really exist — that is, until you experience one yourself.

Parental surveys provide insight into why these low-income families are willing to expend extremely limited funds to send their children to these schools. In order of importance, parents say they value the “quality of education,” “structure and discipline,” “emphasis on religious and human values,” and “safety” in their children’s schools. They also note that the schools have adapted to their children’s needs, including tutoring and after-school programs, partnerships with universities and local museums, and volunteer opportunities for increased parental involvement and interaction with their children. Either these characteristics are purchased at bargain prices or, more likely, they simply cannot be bought.

Certainly there are myriad factors contributing to a child’s success or failure in school — whether public or private.

But clearly the road to better schools is not paved with the almighty dollar.

Nevertheless, we continue to try to spend our way out of educational red ink. Total federal, state, and local spending for education in the United States exceeded an estimated $422 billion during the 2000-2001 academic year. In inflation-adjusted dollars, this means that taxpayers are paying over 86 percent more today than they did in 1980. Yet during this same time period academic achievement scores for students in elementary and secondary school have remained stagnant. In Harrisburg, a proposal (HB 2344) sponsored by Rep. Nick Micozzie, R-Delaware, proposes increasing taxes for public schools by nearly $3 billion.

While proponents of more money for the state’s schools claim that additional funds are necessary to implement various “reforms,” none of the politically popular programs have demonstrated their ability to drive continuous quality improvements. The current elixirs being peddled by Pennsylvania’s school employee labor unions — and supported by many well-meaning policymakers and parents — are proposals to reduce class sizes and expand early childhood education.

Research on the effects of class size reduction and pre-kindergarten programs have not made a convincing case for these expensive reforms. Dr. Eric A. Hanushek, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Rochester, thoroughly reviewed existing scientific evidence on class size reduction programs. The primary conclusion of his research is “Existing evidence indicates that achievement for the typical student will be unaffected by instituting the types of class size reductions that have been recently proposed or undertaken. The most noticeable feature of policies to reduce overall class sizes will be a dramatic increase in the costs of schooling, an increase unaccompanied by achievement gains.”

On the efficacy of early childhood education programs, Pennsylvanians need to look no further than Allegheny County. The Early Childhood Initiative (ECI) received $2 million in start-up money from the Howard Heinz Endowment in 1996 and the United Way took over efforts to raise almost $60 million over five years to fund the program. The hope was to create a demonstration project that the government would eventually absorb.

The ECI promised to serve 7,600 children from birth to age 5 in 80 low-income neighborhoods at a price of $4,000 to $5,000 per child. At its peak in May 2000, only 680 children were enrolled and costs ballooned to $13,600 per child. An independent analysis by the Rand Corp. declared the program a failure. Yet early childhood education proponents continue to spin the multi-million dollar disaster into a “lessons learned” opportunity, promising to get it right the next time.

The real lesson learned, however, is that wanting to do good is not the same as doing good. We should also acknowledge — as in the case of class size reduction -that our intuitions may very well be expensively wrong. While we hope that both class size reduction and early childhood education proponents have the best interests of children in mind, the programs they trumpet have failed to produce the kinds of improvements parents expect and our children deserve.

So can we expect to ever see dramatic improvements in our public schools?  Albert Shanker, the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, observed that “It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.”

Mr. Shanker recognized what many in the public school system refuse to accept — that our schools lack the proper incentives for continuous quality improvement. What our system lacks is competition through “School Choice” -the right, freedom, and ability of parents to choose the safest and best schools for their children.

The evidence suggests that school choice will lead our schools to the improvements that money currently cannot buy. In addition - despite the investigative efforts of choice opponents — no research has found that children have been banned because of school choice. In fact, most evidence reveals that school choice improves academic performance, helps low-income families, and improves public schools. Here are just a few recent examples:

• A 2000 Harvard University study of students who received privately funded scholarships in New York, Dayton, and the District of Columbia found that African-American children improved in math and reading test scores by 6.3 percentile points relative to their public school peers after two years.

A Hoover Institution evaluation of the Milwaukee voucher program found that the test scores for students exercising choice had significantly improved from 1997 to 2000, outscoring students in the rest of the state.

• A Western Michigan University study of students in Pennsylvania’s charter schools found they had made gains on state assessments of more than 100 points after just two years, and outscored students in the other schools in their districts by 86 points. The 2000 study found that the charter schools were smaller and served more at-risk and minority students than did the traditional public schools.

A 2001 Arizona study showed that charter school students make an average of one more month of academic gain per year than similar district school students.

A 2001 study by Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby found that Milwaukee’s public elementary schools have improved as a result of the voucher program.

With the encouraging results from school choice and the evidence that more dollars will not produce more scholars, one wonders when the rallies and false-premised legislative bills will stop. Apparently not even a $2.4 billion state deficit is enough to deter policymakers and school officials from asking for more tax dollars. Yet if we merely restore to parents the opportunity to choose their children’s schools, Pennsylvania could provide tomorrow what $17.4 billion cannot buy today.

Matthew J Brouilletle, a former high school teacher is president of The Commonwealth Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan research and educational institute based in Harrisburg PA.  For more information, visit: www.CommonwealthFoundation.orgcall 717.671.1901 or email