Education Week, October, 14, 2019, by Rick Hess
One of the more frustrating education debates of the past quarter century has been the debate about, as Gary Burtless’s Brookings volume put it back in 1996, Does Money Matter? I mean, it’s tough to think of anywhere else in American life where we’d even have that discussion. If we’re talking about buying a house, choosing a cell phone plan, or paying for preschool, folks on the left and the right sensibly assume that more money makes it easier to afford better options. Of course, money matters.
This is why it’s been so strange to see this strawman hijack the discussion of school spending. In fact, in my experience, school spending skeptics don’t argue that money can’t help—their fear, rather, is that money will be spent on things (like administrative staff and retiree benefits) that they don’t think will make a difference for students. Meanwhile, I’ve found that those calling for more spending will readily (if quietly) concede that of course it matters how those funds are spent. In other words, we’ve spent a lot of time abstractly debating whether money matters, even though everyone agrees that the answer is “yes, but”—and that the “but” turns on whether those funds are spent wisely and well.
The hyperbole has tended to drown out more useful discussion of how to get more bang for the buck. And that’s a question that’s taken on a newfound timeliness thanks to teacher strikes, “Red for Ed,” new ESSA requirements for financial transparency, the costs of teacher health care and pension systems, and the policy demands of a graying population. With that as a backdrop, along with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, I hosted an AEI conference the other day on “How to Get More Bang for the Education Buck” (you can find the event video and the papers here). I won’t try to summarize it all (that’ll be in the Teachers College Press book due out next year) but I thought it worth sharing a few points of interest.
For one, big increases in after-inflation per-pupil spending in recent decades have translated only into minuscule real increases in teacher pay. Indeed, Bryan Hassel, the co-president of Public Impact, pointed out that the share of school spending that funded teacher pay has declined by nearly half, from 50.8 percent in 1969-70 to 30.9 percent in 2015-16. And, of course, teachers need to leave the classroom for administration to see a big salary boost. Hassel argued that the key to addressing this has to be about more than changing the dollar flow and has to include altering the way teaching works. As one possibility, he pointed to Public Impact’s “Opportunity Culture” model, in which teachers can earn much more (with pay raises of 20 percent to 50 percent) by leading teams, reaching more students, and taking on new authority within schools.