Do federal education dollars work?
President Obama is not happy about Texas refusing his Race to the Top money, but I say let's give a languid, scholarly cheer for Gov. Rick Perry (R) and his decision to miss the chance at hundreds of millions of dollars in federal education aid. Texas has, in effect, designated itself a big control group in an interesting test of this haunting question---does increased federal spending make schools better?
The president didn't mention this in his speech at a Fairfax County elementary school today, although his announced plan to add another $1.35 billion to his fund for states and school districts making changes he approves of will just give this scientific exercise another boost. Some districts and states will get the money. Some won't. Which will look better in four or five years?
Policy makers and pundits have been arguing about this for decades. Big federal spending for schools began in the 1960s with Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. That money went to schools with lots of low income kids. It does not seem to have done much good, although you could argue that those schools would have been even worse without the federal dollars.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act signed in 2002, the Bush administration and the Democratic-led Congress raised federal school spending to new heights. That seemed to correlate with modest increases in student achievement, but nothing impressive enough to convince the doubters.
Some people argue that finding the right school leaders and training the best teachers works better than spending more money on schools, although surely such extra efforts take more money. Some say there are plenty of examples of more spending producing better schools, and less spending producing poorer ones. My home state, California, is often cited as an example of a place that lost its educational edge when it started to have severe budget problems.
There are many ways to interpret the data. But now we are going to have a lot more of it, with many politicians using it for their own purposes. Okay, that's fine, but I hope the many bright economists who have immersed themselves in education research will keep an eye on Texas, and see how its schools do when compared to those of similar circumstances in states that take the president's money.
There might be a Nobel prize in it for somebody, if they crunch the numbers right. Just settling the argument would be enough for me.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| January 19, 2010; 12:06 PM ET
Categories: Jay on the Web | Tags: Obama education spending, Texas refuses Race to the Top money, federal education spending
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