Follow the money

It's a perennial question in education: Does money matter?

The basic answer is yes. Decent facilities, adequate books, and enough supplies are essential. Several courts in recent years have ordered states to find ways to make funding more equitable between wealthy and poor communities in the hopes of boosting achievement.

But some schools do well with limited funds, while wealthier ones aren't always high achievers. A Chicago Tribune analysis this month of elementary and middle schools of nearly 800 school districts found "no significant relationship between school spending and performance on state tests." One school cited spent $10,676 per student, and saw 93 percent pass state tests this year. But 93 percent also passed at a school where spending was just $5,917 per student.

A new study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education says money can definitely make a difference before children start school. The link between poverty and low achievement is well known. But these researchers, focusing on children from birth to age 3, looked at what happened when poor families experienced a small uptick in resources - $13,400 over three years. Children were better able to identify colors and letters, and understand and speak more words and phrases. The increase helped poorer kids score as well on tests as kids from families with twice the income. Those whose family incomes fell had worse outcomes.

The researchers will track how shifts in family economics affect children as they grow up, thus gaining information that could guide possible intervention efforts. With 17 percent of US children living in poverty, and billions poured into testing and remedial education, it's an issue worth plumbing.

E-mail newcomba@csmonitor.com

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