Does money transform schools?

Illinois debates its big rich-poor spending gap.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Here in Illinois, how much money a school has - and whether it can offer extras like foreign languages and AP classes, or even pay for basic facilities - depends mostly on where that school is.

The difference in annual spending between the wealthiest district and the poorest has grown to $19,361 per pupil, according to the most recent school-spending data and a Chicago Tribune analysis. It's a staggering figure even in a state known for wide funding gaps, and Illinois is starting to give the kind of attention to the issue that courts have forced in a handful of other states. Still, even as education reformers call for higher taxes and increased funds for the poorest districts, others point out that more money often doesn't lead to better schools.

The factors that improve student performance often seem a fuzzy list of hard-to-define assets like good teachers, effective principals, smaller classes, and the right curricula, only some of which are directly related to dollars.

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But it's also hard to get away from at least a few cash-related questions.

"Just giving more money doesn't solve the problems of achievement," says Kevin Carey, director of policy research for the Education Trust. "But in order to run an effective school, you have to have enough money and you have to spend it well. It's not an either-or situation."

Mr. Carey points out that per-pupil figures often illustrate only a portion of the inequalities, since there are typically much higher costs associated with educating low-income students: extra tutoring, special education, individual education plans. The generally accepted figure is an additional 40 percent for low-income students.

When that amount is factored in, an Education Trust report showed a difference of $2,465 per student between the top and bottom quartile of districts in Illinois.

Those sorts of figures, however, anger some education reformers who consider school funding a distraction from the issues that really matter. They point to the fact that a few schools often manage to do well with very limited funds, and that many schools have seen influxes of money without a corresponding payoff in achievement.

"We should be worried about performance inequities," says Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, citing achievement gaps for minority and low-income students. "Unfortunately, they aren't very closely related to spending differences."

Until a district demonstrates it can spend money wisely, says Mr. Hanushek, it shouldn't be rewarded with more. A court decision like the recent New York one that said New York City schools should receive another $5.6 billion shifts the legislative conversation to pure funding matters, he says, "squeezing out more fundamental discussions of how to improve schools." The extra money for New York City, Hanushek suggests, is likely just to give more money to the same poor-quality teachers.

That New York lawsuit led to a 2003 ruling that the state's school-finance system was unconstitutional. The city still has yet to see the extra money, but some are hopeful it will make a real difference.

Molly Hunter, director of the Access Network for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which brought the lawsuit, notes that students in New York have to pass a laboratory science test. "But 31 high schools in New York City had no science lab," she says.

Ms. Hunter agrees that teacher quality is hugely important. But without the money to pay a competitive salary, attracting those teachers is a problem.

Hunter has seen all sorts of examples to show that money and student performance aren't related. But typically, she says, those isolated examples involve special circumstances - like university-town parents who have PhDs.

Often court cases like New York's are the driving force to change a state's funding system. The most successful, pioneered in Kentucky, involve what's known as the "adequacy" argument. Instead of arguing that all students deserve equal funding, adequacy advocates say all schools need a basic minimum amount.

"We know that money matters," says Bindu Batchu, campaign manager of A+ Illinois, a coalition that promotes school-funding tax reform. In the rural district of Sparta, she says, the superintendent also acts as music teacher and principal at one school and teachers have stopped even asking for replacements for the 20-year-old textbooks - they now just ask for duct tape.

"We can't expect school districts struggling to hold books together with duct tape to invest in programs," that improve achievement, she says.

Advocates for reform would like to see the state pick up a bigger share of the bill and increase its overall funding. But such a change may mean more taxes - one reason any real reform has been slow in coming in a state that relies heavily on local property taxes.

Ms. Batchu, for one, hopes that the situation has gotten serious enough - in Republican downstate communities as well as cities like Chicago - to force some action. "This is not a red or blue issue," she says.

Take rural Galesburg, which depends on state aid due to a struggling local economy. Last year, they spent about $6,500 per student - $2,300 behind the state average.

The district has already closed one school for at-risk kids that was showing signs of success. This year, they'll probably have to close another school, says Paul Woehlke, the district's director of finance. "It's a real challenge for districts such as Galesburg to prepare students to compete at a college level with students from better-funded districts," says Mr. Woehlke. "Money isn't everything, but it's a significant thing."

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