How Much Does Money Matter? Illinois Is Hearing New Calls for Minimum Per-Pupil Spending. No One Denies a Link between Money and Quality Schools. Yet Some Low-Spending Districts Still Perform
Thompson, Don, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Don Thompson Daily Herald State Government Writer
SPRINGFIELD - West Chicago Elementary District 33 cut $1.4 million from its budget last year, laid off 44 teachers and boosted class sizes above 30 students for the first time after voters rejected a local tax increase.
"As far as I'm concerned, that's unconscionable. We can't expect teachers to teach that large a class," said school board President Barbara Toney.
"Certainly money isn't the only answer, but without more money schools can't continue to function."
That was the bottom line last year for Gov. Jim Edgar's education funding commission, of which Toney was a member. It is the same conclusion in another report to be released today.
Even President Clinton weighed into the debate in Tuesday's State of the Union address, urging Congress to approve a 20 percent increase in federal aid to education.
But is more money the answer?
Many low-spending suburban districts do well on state tests, while some high-spending districts have poor results.
"When you look at school performance and achievement levels, money does not have much influence on the outcomes," said George Clowes, managing editor of School Reform News, a new publication of the Palatine-based Heartland Institute. "That's not an issue we ought to focus on. We ought to look at things that would help schools improve."
He contends the answer is increasing competition by allowing parents to send their children to charter or parochial schools if public schools don't measure up.
Others say demographics, not spending, is the often uncontrollable key to determining if a school district produces high-achieving students.
Yes, districts that spend more money tend to have better performing students, said Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.
But that's often because parents in those districts tend to earn higher incomes, have higher education levels and are more literate, said Burtless, author of the recent book, "Does Money Matter?"
They may also have higher expectations for their children, which he said may explain why inner-city children who attend parochial schools tend to do better, even though parochial schools generally spend less than public schools.
Those sorts of intangibles bother state Sen. Dan Cronin, the Elmhurst Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee that must approve any changes in Illinois' education system.
He questions the focus both of last year's governor's commission and this year's education coalition on setting minimum spending levels for school districts. Edgar's commission recommended spending at least $4,225 on each Illinois student. Today's report by an unusual management-labor coalition made up of teachers unions, school administrators, school boards, regional superintendents and parent organizations will recommend increasing that to $4,500 per pupil by the 1998-99 school year, largely because of inflation. …