Spending more money on schools doesn’t help students learn

Will Flanders:

The results were staggering, even after accounting for other demographic and socioeconomic factors that can impact student performance.

All three types of spending were related to either negative proficiency or null proficiency gains for students. None of the types of spending examined were found to correlate with better student outcomes. Of the three, perhaps the least surprising is that more spending on non-teaching staff leads to worse student outcomes. The growth of the education bureaucracy has received increased attention in recent years, with school districts putting more and more money into positions that do not directly touch the classroom. Our research here shows that this is counterproductive if the goal is to improve student performance.

More surprising is that teacher pay and overall spending are negatively related to student outcomes. Wisconsin is a state that ranks relatively high in funding equity across school districts, and more funds are directed toward school districts with more difficult populations. The same can be said for teacher pay, which is often higher in school districts with proportionally more challenging students. So while we wouldn’t claim that additional dollars actually hurt student achievement, we would say that they certainly don’t seem to help. This finding is consistent with much of the research on school finance, which tends to show null or very small positive effects on performance. School funding has increased immensely since the 1970s, and we appear to have crossed the threshold of diminishing returns, whereby additional spending does not lead to commensurate increases in student performance.

The main point is that throwing more money at any of the areas examined here in public schools is not likely to have a positive impact on student outcomes. So how can the public be convinced that more money is not the answer? A recent poll where we asked respondents if they knew how much was spent per student in Wisconsin schools may help to illuminate the problem. The vast majority, more than 80 percent, of respondents underestimated spending. But when these respondents were then told the true amount of spending per student, they became much more likely to say we are already spending enough. More spending always sounds good prima facie, but providing people with the tangible numbers of what we already spend appears to sober them up.