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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.

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By Jay Mathews  | 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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Anyone who lives in Texas knows that everything Governor Perry does is for his own gain, he has never put the welfare of the citizens first, he vetoed a bill for bike lanes, he refused money for extension of job benefits, and on and on. He is the worst excuse for a governor.

Posted by: scottsandy02 | January 19, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Texas is already near the bottom in numbers of students who actually graduate from high school. They start dropping out in 10th grade. Many just didn't get the early education skills in the primary and middle school grades. And students here haven't done all that great in the George W. Bush basically unfunded NCLB. Many students are poor and have no health care (Perry vetoed much of the CHAP funds, and the same with food stamps...his people have a huge backlog of people who are very hungry, but not able to use food stamps because of his administration.

Gov. Perry and the Legislature have diverted most gasoline taxes to schools, and Texas now has very bad roads, traffic jams, poor road planning...and the governor wants to toll each and every federal road in the state!

Posted by: armynda | January 19, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

This decision allows Texas to continue with the policy of filling its textbooks with propaganda instead of facts.

Posted by: jbowen431 | January 19, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Money has never been the "only" way to improve education and throwing money at education and ignoring income, family, society and other variables will never fix all the broken parts of education. And Texas, the state with the lowest standards in the country, can never be used as a control in a study of the link between federal dollars and achievement in school because more money still wouldn't get Texas' scores high enough to matter. I'd look at NCLB, teacher respect and salaries and other areas to couple with money cause dollars alone, while always helpful, don't cure all ills.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | January 19, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

For an in-depth look at how states have been approaching the heavy competition of Race to the Top, watch our coverage on the PBS NewsHour tonight.

In the weeks before the applications were due, we watched legislators and educators in Colorado, Maryland and other states planning their strategies. Some states changed laws just to qualify to compete, while others rewrote policies in hopes of increasing their chances of winning.

Check local listings or watch it online after it airs:

Elena Schilder

Posted by: elenaschilder | January 19, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

I would suggest there is another way to look at this. Let's face it, our national policy for the past 10 years or so has been to offshore our skilled jobs. That is a fact of life. It has been a plank in the Republican Party platform, efforts at two Republican conventions to get it removed have failed. So we must assume that it is part of the Republican Plan. Indeed, since this is their plan it is pretty clear that Perry is acting logically.

It is clear that what the Republicans want to do is to increase a base of potential employees with little intellectual abilities so that various Republican states can build a cadre of non-skilled workers who would be capable of only working in the most menial of jobs, i.e., they work cheap. Labor costs are kept low and due to diminished schooling will probably not understand that pushing for union jobs creates job security and healthy working conditions. This way, these Republican states have a workforce that is quite willing to work for slave wages and horrific working conditions. In a way, Perry wants to have a variant on the old "keep 'em pregnant and in the kitchen". Here it is "keep 'em dumb and subservient". I suspect that his next move is to remove both reading and writing skills out of the schools.

Now many may see this as a bit extreme, but here is what you will see as Texas' educational base plummets. More of corporate America will move to Texas, cheap and dumb labor. Unfortunately, for the more enlightened states, we will loose jobs to Texas, since as the economists tell us, capital follows to cheap labor. Think this is nonsense, just look at us in Washington state where Boeing is beginning its relocation to Red States, i.e., South Carolina. Heck, Detroit and the foreign automakers have already done this. So at the end of the day, maybe this is a shrewed move on Perry's part.

Posted by: RedRat | January 19, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

"...does increased federal spending make schools better?" What if you eliminated the word "federal" from above?

The reason Texas backed out of Race To The Top monies is related to their tired state sovereignty claim. The reality: the right-wing Christin fundamentalist led state legislature wants to continue to have the authority to mandate religious indoctrination in school instead of science. Another Red State struggling in their battle to join the rest of the country in its journey into the twenty-first century. You simply cannot make this nonsense up!!!

Posted by: phoss1 | January 19, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Pointing fingers at various political parties and state leaders does not address the issue of whether or not the Department of Education is warranted. Whether it is in Texas or in my home state of Virginia, a cabinet level arm of the Federal government should not be involved in local and/or state education, period. The quality of and amount of money allocated to education should be determined by the local and state government.

Posted by: holland21 | January 19, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

"...does increased federal spending make schools better?" We have 100 years of documentation that more money does not increase the quality or quantity of educational output. Dedicated non-union teachers and committed parents DO "make schools better."

Posted by: IQ168 | January 19, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Texas is one of only 2 states which has a governor that has refused to sign on to the Common Core of State Standards Governors Association proposal. So in 4 or 5 years we won't know anything more about that state because Texas can effectively play hide the ball with whatever its students are (or are not) learning.
This is not a stance to be applauded for its rugged individualism, as you imply Jay, but an unfortunate abandonment of students in the Lone Star State.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | January 19, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

You write that Title 1 money hasn't done much good when it comes to educating low income students and then you write "although you could argue that those schools would have been even worse without the federal dollars". Well, isn't that contradicting your argument that Title 1 money hasn't done much good. Obviously it has done some good. You can't have it both ways Mr. Mathews. Also, have you ever taught in a Title 1 school Or are you the scholar that writes about it but doesn't get into the REAL work of teaching those Title 1 (Chapter 1) students?
I've been there. I know. Alot of us in the field know. It's not all theory. It's doing the job!
I have been

Posted by: mcdonalsherry | January 19, 2010 7:28 PM | Report abuse

Armynda wrote: "Texas is already near the bottom in numbers of students who actually graduate from high school. They start dropping out in 10th grade. Many just didn't get the early education skills in the primary and middle school grades." They cannot get those skills in primary and middle schools because those skills are not taught in the Mexican schools those children attended. I taught (briefly) in the RGV and 9th graders were just coasting along until they could legally drop out and go to work in the fields. The ones born in the US mostly stayed in school until graduation.

Posted by: JBaustian | January 19, 2010 9:33 PM | Report abuse

mcdonalsherry wrote:

"...Also, have you ever taught in a Title 1 school Or are you the scholar that writes about it but doesn't get into the REAL work of teaching those Title 1 (Chapter 1) students?...."


I would like to know the answer to this. Mr. Mathews, have you taught within Title 1 schools, especially within the past decade, to actually provide a hands on/informed opinion?

It's pretty apparent that your opinions are data driven, but when was the last time that you actually taught a class?

Posted by: PGCResident1 | January 19, 2010 11:09 PM | Report abuse

As many of you are arguing over whether or not one has to have taught at a Title 1 school in order to analyze data and debate this matter here is a question worth focusing on: why should the federal government be involved in local and state education?

Answer that with fact based rational thought, rather than personal stories or simply cutting and pasting each others words.

Posted by: holland21 | January 19, 2010 11:49 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: caxtontype1 | January 20, 2010 12:39 AM | Report abuse


The schools are still maintained and mandated by local and state governing rules and education policies.

The federal government seems to be the only branch of government that can adequaely fund the educational system during this financial crisis.

NCLB was introduced because school systems were unable to provide educational services toward students that tax paying citizens were funding.

Posted by: PGCResident1 | January 20, 2010 1:21 AM | Report abuse

Irrespective of Texas' reasoning for turning down the funds, I hope more states do the same. Maybe it will occur to Obama and his misguided education secretary that Race to the Top is a terrible idea, as indicated by decades of respected, but often ignored, academic research.

So I repeat, please check out the new book “Drive” by Dan Pink on this subject. Here are some recent interviews with the author:

And here’s a Harvard Business School working paper describing the same body of research:

Posted by: efavorite | January 20, 2010 9:08 AM | Report abuse

The conventional wisdom is that CA school spending is among the lowest in the U.S. but the Census Bureau found that we were in the middle (at least as of 2006): "In terms of school revenues, California was 25th among the states at $10,264 per pupil, just under the national average." Quote is from an article in the Sacramento Bee, cited here:

Posted by: CrimsonWife | January 20, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

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