on spending for schools and the idea of “root causes”

I mentioned last week that Rethinking Schools is a fine publication. The current issue on small schools is full of information and insights. For example, Wayne Au makes the point that small institutions are at a disadvantage under No Child Left Behind, because they have so few students that they will see big random swings in their annual test scores–and failure to improve their mean scores every year leads to sanctions. In general, the magazine is useful as a distillation of progressive thinking about education. I endorse most of its content, but I want to register some dissents, because I think the way forward for the left is to criticize our traditional ideas and develop new ones.

Reflecting traditional left-of-center ideology, several contributors to Rethinking Schools stress that creating smaller high schools–even if it’s a good idea–can’t solve the “root causes” of society’s problems, which include poverty and racism. Now, I agree completely with Craig Gordon that it is unjust for a single corporate CEO in his city to be paid as much as 600 new teachers. But I’m not at all sure that it’s wise to treat economic inequality as the “root” issue, while viewing such matters as the size and structure of schools as superficial.

There is presumably a vicious cycle in which poverty and racism contribute to poor educational outcomes (and also to crime and morbidity); low-income communities receive substandard government services; and problems like under-education, disease, and crime generate and preserve poverty. If this vicious cycle exists, then we ought to intervene wherever we think we’ll have the most impact. For example, it appears that cities can reduce crime by changing their policing strategies, even when the poverty rate remains constant. In turn, lower crime rates should encourage economic investment and growth in urban neighborhoods. So the liberal nostrum that poverty is the “root cause of crime” was at least partly a tactical mistake.

The traditional mechanism for increasing equality is after-the-fact. Once people have obtained their incomes in the marketplace, we tax them progressively and spend the proceeds on social programs. I think our tax system should be more progressive, because everyone agrees we have growing needs (including the federal entitlement programs and interest payments on the national debt); we are not meeting those needs; and the only fair way to increase federal income is to raise taxes on wealthy people. But there is no clear political strategy for increasing equity through redistribution. Nor will poorer Americans automatically benefit from more spending in sectors like education.

The U.S. Department of Education recently reported that per-pupil spending on public school students increased by 24 percent, adjusting for inflation, between 1990 and 2002. That is a big increase that enables us to test the proposition that more education spending would be better for the least advantaged America. I see four possibilities …

1) The new money has purchased substantial improvements in educational outcomes for all Americans. That would counter the angry and sad rhetoric of Rethinking Schools. However, it would support the case for even more spending.

2) The money has not obtained improvements because it has not been well spent; that would underline the importance of institutional reform.

3) The money has been spent on kids who were better off to start with; hence the outcomes of poor kids did not improve. I find this story unlikely, given the recent pressure for equity. But it is possible.

4) The Department of Education is wrong to claim a 24% real increase. That would be a scandal, and it seems implausible.

I don’t know which of these four hypotheses is correct, but much depends on the answer. I intend to keep an open mind about education spending until I know more. Meanwhile, I have the feeling that Senator Obama was right when he said at a commencement address last week: “We’ll have to reform institutions, like our public schools, that were designed for an earlier time. Republicans will have to recognize our collective responsibilities, even as Democrats recognize that we have to do more than just defend old programs.”