Scholars Aren’t Made from Dollars

Member Group : Commonwealth Foundation

Pop Quiz: If throwing more money at a problem solves it, why hasn’t doubling taxpayer spending on education over 15 years, to $26 billion per year, given us better schools and results?

All indications say academic performance remains inadequate, with thousands of children trapped in failing schools while waiting lists for charter schools and Educational Improvement Tax Credit scholarships grow. The proponents of education status quo say they need still more time and more money. But can Pennsylvania afford to allow another generation of children to fail in a broken system?

Today, Pennsylvania taxpayers spend more than $13,000 per student—$2,000 more than the national average. In some of our chronically underperforming public schools, taxpayers are paying nearly $20,000 per student. Public schools increased jobs for adults by 33,000, while enrollment declined by 26,960 students since 2000.

With large funding increases, achievement should be through the roof; instead, Pennsylvania’s academic performance has flat-lined. Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, which compares children across the 50 states, has remained relatively unchanged for years. Only 40 percent of Pennsylvania 8th graders score at or above proficiency on the NAEP reading and mathematics exams. SAT scores for Pennsylvania students have changed little over time, and the commonwealth lags other states with high participation.

Academic studies find little or no correlation between student achievement and class size, teacher salaries, or per-pupil expenditures. A 2010 study comparing 11th grade math, reading, and science scores on state tests with district per-pupil spending found low-spending districts often outperform high-spending ones.

The evidence is so clear that even progressive organizations, such as Center for American Progress, which usually aligns with union interests, admit more dollars do not equal more scholars. CAP’s study comparing school district spending and performance concluded that more resources are not correlated with higher test scores, even after adjusting for variables such as poverty.

There is even evidence that throwing more money at schools may be inhibiting learning. The 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education looked at the 30 Pennsylvania school districts that improved the most on 11th grade reading and math performance and the 30 districts that declined the most from 2004 to 2010. Schools that declined actually had higher increases in total per-pupil spending.
Still, the education establishment clings to their mantra that more tax dollars will improve schools. But throwing more money into a flawed system is clearly not helping children succeed; so why do we keep doing it?

If taxpayers can no longer afford to fund an education system where spending is tied to buildings and special interests, instead of children, then Pennsylvania needs to change the script to talk about moving its schools to incentives.

Where more spending has failed to improve education, parental school choice has a proven record of success. When parents have the ability to choose the best school for their child, student achievement improves. Nine of 10 "gold standard" evaluations of voucher programs reported statistically significant gains in achievement for all or some voucher recipients.

Indeed, choice and competition have resulted in public school improvement as well. Offering scholarships to families, expanding Pennsylvania’s successful Educational Improvement Tax Credit and increasing access to charter schools would increase the opportunities and performance of our students.

Merit pay for teachers—treating educators as professionals by rewarding and retaining good teachers—also has shown to improve the quality of education. So too should Pennsylvania scrap the tenure system which protects bad teachers, and give schools the flexibility to retain staff based on performance, not seniority.

Dramatic spending increases over the past decades only benefited adults employed by the educational bureaucracy. We cannot sit by and tell parents to wait a few more decades while we put more money into failing schools. We must reform our educational system now or we will fail the test.

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Elizabeth Stelle is a Research Associate with the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.
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