Why Throwing Money at Schools Actually Is the Answer

Guess what? According to data analysis of the 10 wealthiest and poorest school districts, money does matter.

Whenever the issue of improving public schools comes up there's always somebody eager to say that throwing more money at the problem isn't the answer—schools just need to become more efficient with the dollars they have. Frequently the person saying this doesn't actually have kids enrolled in a public school, or if they do, they don't have kids attending public school in a low-income community. Well, next time you encounter the money doesn't matter spiel, point out that there’s plenty more cash being "thrown" at schools in wealthy Fairfield County, Connecticut and Westchester County, New York and it certainly seems to be working for the kids there.

According to an analysis by 24/7 Wall Street, which looked at U.S. Census, education, and housing data from 2006 to 2010 from more than 10,000 school districts, those two New York City-area commuter hubs have nine of the 10 wealthiest school districts in the nation. Unsurprisingly, students attending schools in those districts have higher test scores, access to plenty of AP classes, and are more likely to take AP tests. In most of the districts 100 percent of students graduate from high school and matriculate into college.

How are those districts accomplishing such stellar results? It's not that they're more efficient with their money. The national average of $11,764 spent per pupil is chump change compared to the $27,980 spent on each student in well-off Bronxville, New York. Schools there are funded by the $43,000 per year on average that Bronxville families—half of whom earn over $200,000 annually—pay in property taxes. That enables Bronxville to fund 84 percent of their local school budget, with the remaining 16 percent coming from state and federal coffers.

The 10 poorest school districts are located primarily in rural areas in Kentucky and Texas. Monticello, Kentucky—where 40 percent of households live below the poverty line and the median income is only $16,778—collects a meager $892 per household for schools and depends on state and federal sources for 92 percent of its education budget. That means Monticello schools only have $9,964 per student to work with. Reliance on state and federal funds hurts districts like that since when those budgets are slashed, money the schools need to pay for teachers, buy supplies, and fund intervention programs disappears.

Kids in Monticello score well below the state average on standardized tests, only 60 percent of adults in the community have a high school diploma, and only about 6 percent have gone to college. Meanwhile, 100 percent of Bronxville’s public school students graduate from high school and head to college.

Sure, there are factors besides school budgets that play a role in a students' success (the parents' education levels, for example) but it's hard to pretend funding differences this dramatic don't matter. Indeed, a recent Brookings Institution report about the achievement disparities between schools in wealthy and poor communities recommended eliminating zoning laws that prohibit students from poor neighborhoods from enrolling in schools in wealthier communities.

It's possible to find an example of a public school in a low-income community that's getting top notch academic results with its students. Those schools are out there, and while they're inspiring, we need to to stop using one-off models of excellence as an excuse for not giving poor kids access to the same science equipment, technology, and art and music programs that are being bought for their wealthier peers. Indeed, if we really want all students to achieve, and not just those in rich neighborhoods, adjusting our priorities and throwing more money at schools in low-income communities is a critical part of the solution.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons