Q: In education, does money matter? A: It’s complicated

Q: In education, does money matter? A: It’s complicated

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series of editorials that will look at how Washington’s education funding system can be improved to ensure all public school students get a quality education.

The topic of education often feels like a battleground. But on one point, there is general agreement. We all want K-12 students to graduate from high school literate, numerate and able to go to college without spending lots of extra time on remedial classes.

The consensus comes apart around money — would more of it really make a difference in achieving these goals?

That deceptively simple query has spawned decades of academic research, and recent history adds new confusion. Washington funneled billions more dollars toward education after the McCleary school-funding settlement in 2017, so why aren’t student outcomes soaring?

The answer is both straightforward and complex. Yes, money matters. But the way it’s spent matters at least as much.

To settle the first point, consider a deep-dive study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Analysts tracked the education and adult-life outcomes of 15,000 children between 1955 and 1985. Some kids lived in states that were court-ordered to inject more money into education. When the researchers compared their results against those of students whose schools were not similarly funded — controlling for outside factors, like family income — they found “compelling evidence” that money made a difference.

But that is truer for some students than others. For example, when low-income children attend a high-quality preschool, it doubles the impact of money spent on K-12, according to research from the Education Law Center.

It’s all about how the money is spent. Simply paying educators bigger salaries to do the same thing will not improve results. That’s what happened to most of the money from the McCleary settlement.

This isn’t necessarily wrong — good teachers should be well-paid — but the McCleary battle focused on making sure schools were adequately funded, not on raising performance.

There, we have work to do. While Washington students overall perform at the national average or better, Black, Latino and low-income kids (who make up 47% of the school-going population) lag far behind white students — a yawning gulf virtually unchanged from 20 years ago.

That is an outrage.

Piles of research point the way toward achieving better results, and two findings emerge consistently: Raise standards for teacher licensing, since their skills are the primary determinant in a child’s education, and boost time spent on learning, whether through after-school tutoring or an extended school day. Some studies suggest that smaller class sizes also make a difference. All of these things cost money.

State education Superintendent Chris Reykdal speaks to none of them in his current budget proposal. He suggests removing the cap on special education funds, raising wages for paraeducators, and providing free meals to all students. Each is important, but none directly targets improved performance.

Washington needn’t reinvent the wheel. Other states should provide inspiration. Massachusetts, routinely a top performer, increased standards for teacher licensing. New Jersey, right behind Massachusetts, has emphasized quality preschools and bilingual education.

These things are not cheap, and no turnaround happens overnight. But if they make a difference to the students Washington has overlooked for decades, they’re worth it.

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