Lawmakers in Olympia are considering proposals to radically increase state funding to local school districts, in an effort to reduce class sizes and lift public education's abysmal graduation rates. Alternatively, lawmakers may place a tax increase proposal on the ballot, while telling voters that more funding is desperately needed for public schools. By some estimates, these proposed changes would increase school spending by 50 percent, adding some $7 billion in permanent new spending to the education budget.
Would such a huge increase in spending work? No. Like a mechanic trying to fix a broken transmission by putting more gas in the tank, increasing the amount of money we spend on public schools will not improve educational outcomes for students.
We know this because expensive class size reduction efforts have failed to improve student achievement in other states. For example, in 1996 California policymakers embraced a program to significantly reduce class sizes, and spent $800 million its first year and billions of dollars over its first decade. The new dollars yielded disappointing results.
Follow-up research by the American Institutes for Research and RAND found no effect on student achievement. Since 1993, Washington state lawmakers have spent over $5 billion on more than 80 education reform programs. None of them has succeeded in significantly raising student achievement.
Today, 104,000 people are employed by Washington school districts to educate a little over one million students, or about one employee for every ten students. Yet nearly half the people working in public education are not teachers. Taxpayers provide $9,500 a year per student, but only 59 cents of every education dollar reaches the classroom. Congress just provided our state with an additional $1,000 per student through President Obama's stimulus plan, but after filtering through the multi-layered education establishment it is unlikely much of this added money will reach students.
Meanwhile, two recent government reports show that for the first time public schools in Washington are producing a generation of students that is less educated than their parents. All these facts show that simply pouring more dollars into the education budget won't help students.
Increasing spending will not improve outcomes, but placing an effective teacher in the classroom will. Research consistently shows that an effective teacher is more important than any other single factor, including class size, in raising student academic achievement. Students taught by a high-quality teacher three years in a row score 50 percentile points higher on standardized tests than students with ineffective teachers. And students taught by a weak teacher two years in a row may never catch up.
Think about it. Which would you choose for your 1st grade child: a great teacher in a classroom of 25 students, or an ineffective teacher in a classroom of 15 students?
So what can be done? Lawmakers can make one simple change which would vastly increase the talent pool of available teachers without spending one additional tax dollar. All they have to do is allow public schools to hire teachers the same way private schools do, by letting the principal hire the most qualified person for the job.
Currently, only people holding an approved state certificate can teach in a public school. This restriction doesn't apply to private schools. That means none of the 5,000 highly trained, experienced and motivated people being laid off from Microsoft this year can accept a teaching position in a public school, but all of them are available to teach in private schools.
If the certificate requirement were eliminated it would not be missed. The Harvard Graduate School of Education found that a state-mandated teaching credential "matters little" in raising student achievement. Mathematica Policy Research found there is no correlation between student test scores and state-mandated teacher credentials.
Policymakers should give local principals authority over their budgets so they can hire their teaching staffs based on competence, subject knowledge and professional motivation. The result would be passionate, enthusiastic teachers, better public schools and higher-quality education for children, all for the amount of money we are spending right now.
- Liv Finne is director of the Center for Education at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan research organization in Seattle and Olympia (washingtonpolicy.org).