Review: Schoolhouses, Courthouses and Statehouses

The question of public education funding is very much in the public view these days. South Dakota’s very own school districts are employing the courts in an effort to force the legislature to provide more money–to the end that the education of the state’s citizens is substantially improved.

With this as background, I found Schoolhouses, Courthouses and Statehouses to be of great interest.

Schoolhouses, Courthouses and StatehousesFrom a technical standpoint, the book is well organized and written. The two authors heavily revised/rewrote each other’s material, so one doesn’t get the sense of disconnectedness which can often arise from reading a work which contains two or more voices on the topic at hand. The first part of the book (and by far the largest) is dedicated to an exegesis of where we are now in relation to all of those “adequacy” suits which have been brought against the various states over the last 40 years.

This leads me to the first thing which struck me about the content: About 4 out of 5 states have had to address lawsuits brought by school systems on the topic of funding public schools for children. This is a remarkable number. Some of the cases which were first brought (such as Robinson vs Cahill in New Jersey) are still in the court system after decades of litigation.

The authors–Eric A. Hanushek and Alfred A. Lindseth–use the data which is available from standardized testing in states which have had court-directed funding increases as well as states which have not to show time and again throughout the first part of the book that simply spending more money (at least in the ways which have been tried to date) provide no measurable benefit to the students in terms of improved academic performance. One example which stood out for me in particular was the Kansas City Missouri case. The judge ordered the school district to not worry about the cost but to simply spend what was necessary to fix the problem. 12 years and $1.2 billion later, the school system had a lot of new buildings, new teachers, new programs and the same grades as before the monetary shot in the arm.

The book covers the different approaches which have been used by various schools and consultants to determine just what better academic scores cost. These approaches (which seem largely theoretical even today based on their inconsistency) do not work. Most tellingly were the cases where two different groups of consultants used their own complicated costing out formulas for the same school system, only to arrive at costs which differed by $5 or $10K or more per student (or found that the schools were already spending thousands more per student than was required for optimal funding).

The book does get a bit complex from time to time with the necessary graphs and charts to support the author’s conclusions, but these elements add to the content without necessarily slowing down the reader (or requiring a PhD in mathematics for understanding). I was impressed that the book was readable and the arguments were not difficult to follow.

The last (and smaller) portion of the book lays out the author’s recommendations for fixing funding for public schools. In short, it comes down to creating incentives for performance. Right now, the school system which can show the greatest need (old buildings, minority or at-risk pupils, etc) tends to get more money. The authors think that this is (I’m hugely simplifying here) a perverse incentive and one which tends to keep the situation from improving.

While the authors are not educators (and do not really attempt to lay out or support a particular philosophy of education) they do have kind words to say about charter schools and other non-traditional approaches to improving academic achievements. Since they are interested in the data, one of their ideas would be that each student would have a set of data which would follow her around, no matter which school, district, or state she ended up in throughout her time in K-12. I’m uncomfortable with this from a privacy standpoint, but understand the author’s desires to work with as clean a set of data as possible–believing as they do that clean data shows no correlation between increased funding and increased performance on the part of students and teachers in most current school systems.

Much more could be said, but I would simply recommend that you procure a copy of the book (which is well supplied with chapter notes for those inclined to dig ever deeper into court cases and test scores). I find it has opened my eyes to the weaknesses of current funding schemes as well as provided me with much to consider.

I’d like to leave you with a point the authors bring out near the end: Why should we continue to not reward individual teachers and administrators for excellence when that is the norm in just about any other industry? Because too many people have too much vested in the current funding systems to be willing to change them, if they are given the choice.