Advocates, some politicians and an analysis, say that more school funding means better student performance, but taxpayer groups and a second analysis disagree. With the question up for political debate in 2007, can either side strike a decisive blow? (Photo by Mitch Gottlieb)

Bindu Batchu believes strongly that inadequate school funding in Illinois places many school districts and their students in an unfair position. “We are expecting districts to ensure that all students cross the finish line, but, [to do that], they need to have resources,” said Batchu, campaign manager of A+ Illinois, a school funding reform coalition. “We are now expecting students to cross the academic finish line with a couple of flat tires.”

The coalition’s price tag to pump air into school districts’ financial tires: an additional $2 billion each year. That’s the amount needed to make sure that all districts reach the Education Funding Advisory Board’s recommended level of funding—somewhere between $6,400 and $9,500 per pupil depending upon a district’s percentage of low-income students. The advisory board recommends education spending levels to the Illinois General Assembly. “We are looking as a necessary starting point to fix the broken school funding system,” Batchu said. “If we don’t even get there, [students] don’t have any chance of meeting Adequate Yearly Progress standards.”

The Chicago Reporter set out to answer the questions of whether more money indeed makes a difference in student performance, and, if so, how much money is enough. The Reporter interviewed educators, activists, union officials, local school council members, academics and politicians. In addition, the Reporter commissioned two analyses of statewide data including student demographics, per pupil expenditures and test scores during the 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 school years for nearly 900 school districts in Illinois.

The answers painted a picture as foggy as the ongoing debate over school funding reform. However, two basic sets of answers emerged.

School funding reform advocates, including activists, teachers and superintendents, say more money, spent wisely, is likely to lead to higher student scores. And one of the researchers enlisted by the Reporter found a clear link between school spending and student performance.

Batchu explained that simply providing more money will not ensure high-quality schools. But she noted that measures proven to be effective—early childhood education, effective teacher training and mentoring programs, for example—carry hefty price tags.

But taxpayer groups and other critics have opposed increased education spending, particularly through tax hikes, arguing that more money for schools only guarantees higher-paid teachers and administrators—not better student performance. And one study commissioned by the Reporter found no link between expenditures and outcomes.

“All the studies from the 1960s show little, if any, correlation between school spending and student performance,” said Jim Tobin, president of National Taxpayers United of Illinois, a taxpayer advocacy group that opposes increased spending for education.

Tobin says an increase would amount to nothing more than giving “overpaid public school teachers a big, fat pay raise.”

The Reporter commissioned Eric Mitchem, a fifth-year doctoral student in economics at Texas A&M University to conduct a “successful schools” analysis of nearly 900 school districts in Illinois.

In successful schools analyses, researchers label schools or school districts as “successful” or “underperforming” based on a number of standards and examine the differences in spending between those two groups. Mitchem identified nine definitions of success based on various levels of the districts’ composite test scores and whether districts were meeting the state’s definition for Adequate Yearly Progress.

Mitchem did not find a statistically significant link between school expenditures and student outcomes. His analysis shows that there is a wide range of spending levels for successful districts.

Spending for the 13 districts that met each of Mitchem’s definitions of success ranged from $5,613 per pupil to $13,413 per pupil.

In fact, under eight of Mitchem’s definitions, underperforming districts, on average, actually spent up to $772 more per pupil than the successful districts.

A major difference between the two groups was the percentage of students who qualified for free and reduced-price lunch. In fact, the percentage of low-income students was the only variable that was statistically significant in each of Mitchem’s nine definitions of success.

Mitchem cautioned against drawing the conclusion that additional spending in districts with higher percentages of low-income students would inevitably lead to higher test scores. “We can’t tell what would happen if we spent more,” he said.

But Bruce Baker, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, found a direct link between school funding and student performance.

Baker conducted a “cost-function” analysis, which uses student and district data to create a statistical model that predicts the cost for students to reach specific test outcomes.

In all, Baker’s study shows that Illinois needs an additional $2.9 billion to ensure that all school districts have 64 percent of students meeting state standards—the weighted average composite score for districts included in the data. More than half of that money, about $1.9 billion, would go to the Chicago Public Schools, where just 44.6 percent of students met state standards in 2004-2005.

The figure would be $2.2 billion to ensure that each Illinois school district has at least 55 percent of their students meeting state standards, a mark required in 2007 by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Baker said that the statistical model produces spending estimates based on the spending behavior and outcomes reflected in the two years of data analyzed. He said the model also controls for the relative efficiency with which districts produce outcomes.

According to Baker’s analysis, enrollment of 700 or fewer students and high percentages of special education, low-income, English-language learners or African American students were significant predictors of higher costs. Baker also found that greater spending is required for high school districts. He noted that high school districts, historically, had lower scores and spent more per pupil.

Other researchers have found similar results, particularly for low-income students.

The costs of achieving similar education outcomes for children qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches are about 109 percent higher, on average, than costs for the “average” child, according to a 2005 paper by William Duncombe and John Yinger, both professors of public administration at Syracuse University.

But some researchers challenge the validity of successful schools, cost-function and other such analyses. The whole concept of determining adequacy in school funding is not very solid, according to Jay P. Greene, the endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. “There’s no technical definition of adequate,” Greene said. “It really is a political judgment, not a technical judgment.”

“There’s no science of how much is enough,” Greene said.

Still, a number of advocates, educators and legislators concurred with Baker’s finding, stating that money spent judiciously on effective and research-backed interventions can have a positive impact on student performance. Their estimates of the additional money Illinois needs, to ensure that each district has adequate funding, ranged between $2 billion and $4 billion.

Glenn W. “Max” McGee, superintendent of Wilmette School District 39, cited leadership training, literacy, teacher quality and early childhood education as the most important areas on which to focus. “More money makes a difference, if it’s used in ways that are proven to be successful,” said McGee, a former state superintendent of education. “Just putting more money in without charging it to specific programs and practices is not going to make a difference.”

State Rep. Roger Eddy, who also serves as the superintendent of Hutsonville Community Unit School District 1, in rural Crawford County, recommended putting funding into preschool, after-school programs, and incentives to encourage top teachers to work in the most challenging school settings.

But Eddy is not certain that boosting school funding alone would eliminate achievement gaps.

For his part, Russell Pietrowiak, a school board member of Aurora East Unit School District 131, noted that the price tag to provide an adequate education for all Illinois students could get even higher in future years, as the score threshold required by No Child Left Behind climbs ever higher.

The required percentage of students meeting state standards increases an additional 7.5 percent every year until 2012. By 2014, 100 percent of students will be required to pass state tests. Just five of the state’s nearly 3,900 public schools met that threshold during the 2004-2005 school year, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

“If the goal is to educate everybody at a certain level, the investment needs to match that,” Pietrowiak said. “What’s the investment level to get to 100? –¦ How [is the state] going to reach an ever increasing target without sufficient resources?”

Sara Semelka helped research this article.

Jeff is the founder and executive director of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) and the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professor of Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University....