Most people, even educators, don’t pay close attention to school finance because the aid formulas get arcane quickly and the eyes glaze over. But nothing is more important to providing good schooling than having the resources to take care of students, teachers, and facilities. In the past two decades, many states have ignored equitable school funding and have chosen to offer “school choice” instead of paying teachers a living wage. As we learned from the widely circulated report of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a large number of states are spending less on their schools today than they did a decade ago. The states that have starved public schools of adequate funding are the same states that have provided choice. It’s a sort of “Let them eat cake” response when people don’t have bread.

Jan Resseger recently reviewed Bruce Baker’s book on school finance and found it to be important and accessible to lay readers. Baker writes clearly and he knows school finance.

Rutgers University school finance professor, Bruce Baker’s new book, Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, covers the basics—how school finance formulas are supposed to work to ensure that funding for schools is adequate, equitable, and stable.

Baker also carefully refutes some persistent myths—Eric Hanushek’s claim that money doesn’t really make a difference when it comes to raising student achievement, for example, and the contention that public schools’ expenditures have skyrocketed over the decades while achievement as measured by test scores has remained flat.

Baker does an excellent job of demonstrating that far more will be needed for our society appropriately to support school districts segregated not only by race, but also by poverty. The final sections of the book are a little technical. They explain the construction of a more equitable system that would drive enough funding to come closer to what is really needed in school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty.

Baker’s book is especially important for updating a discussion of basic school finance theory to account for today’s realities. He shows, for example, how the Great Recession undermined adequate and equitable funding of public schools despite that states had formulas in place that were supposed to have protected children and their teachers: “The sharp economic downturn following the collapse of the housing market in 2007-08, and persisting through about 2011, provided state and federal elected officials a pulpit from which to argue that our public school systems must learn how to do more with less… Meanwhile, governors on both sides of the aisle, facing tight budgets and the end of federal aid that had been distributed to temporarily plug state budget holes, ramped up their rhetoric for even deeper cuts to education spending… Notably, the attack on public school funding was driven largely by preferences for conservative tax policies at a time when state budgets experienced unprecedented drops in income and sales tax revenue.” (p. 4)

And for the first time in a school finance book, Baker explores the impact of two decades of charter school expansion on the funding of public schools. Although the conventional wisdom promoted by the corporate reformers has said that competition from independent charter school operators would introduce innovation and thereby stimulate academic improvement in public schools, not enough people have seriously considered the fiscal implications of slicing a fixed school funding pie into more pieces. Baker examines these fiscal implications of charter school expansion from many perspectives.

Charters are, first, one of those “false promises of cost-free solutions”: “The theory of action guiding these remedies and elixirs is that public, government-run schooling can be forced to operate more productively and efficiently if it can be reshaped and reformed to operate more like privately run, profit-driven corporations/businesses… Broadly, popular reforms have been built on the beliefs that the private sector is necessarily more efficient; that competition spurs innovation (and that there may be technological solutions to human capital costs); that data driven human capital policies can increase efficiency/productivity by improving the overall quality of the teacher workforce. One core element of such reform posits that US schools need market competition to spur innovation and that market competition should include government-operated schools, government-sanctioned (charter) privately operated schools, and private schools…. (T)here is little reason to believe that these magic elixirs will significantly change the productivity/efficiency equation or address issues of equity, adequacy, and equal opportunity.” (pp. 6-7)

Baker also speaks to the philosophical justification frequently offered to justify the rapid expansion of school choice—that justice can be defined by offering more choices for those who have few: “Liberty and equality are desirable policy outcomes. Thus, it would be convenient if policies simultaneously advanced both. But it’s never that simple. A large body of literature on political theory explains that liberty and equality are preferences that most often operate in tension with one another. While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly not one and the same. Preferences for and expansion of liberties often lead to greater inequality and division among members of society, whereas preferences for equality moderate those divisions. The only way expanded liberty can lead to greater equality is if available choices are substantively equal, conforming to a common set of societal standards. But if available choices are substantively equal, then why choose one over another. Systems of choice and competition rely on differentiation, inequality, and both winners and losers.” (p. 28)

Baker addresses Betsy DeVos’s contention that, “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them…This isn’t about school ‘systems.’ This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.” Here is Baker’s answer: “The ‘money belongs to the child’ claim also falsely assumes that the only expenses associated with each individual’s education choices are the current annual expenses of educating that individual…. It ignores entirely marginal costs and economies of scale, foundational elements of origins of public institutions. We collect tax dollars and provide public goods and services because it allows us to do so at an efficient scale of operations… Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now. These dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding… do not belong exclusively to those parents.” (p. 30)

Are charter schools more efficient at improving school achievement measured by test scores and are they fiscally efficient? “(A) close look at high-profile charters in New York City indicates that their success reflects their access to additional resources and a fairly traditional approach to leveraging them… For each of these major operators… the share of low-income (those who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch ), English language learners, and children with disabilities is lower than for district schools, in some cases quite substantially. On average, these schools are serving far less needy and thus less costly student populations than are the district schools.” Baker provides details of major New York City charter networks’ expenditure patterns; what he finds is that the best-funded allocate their instructional expenses in a similar way to traditional public schools: “Collectively, these figures tell a story of high-profile, well-funded CMOs in New York City leveraging their additional resources in three logical and rather traditional ways by hiring more staff per pupil… by paying their teachers more at any given level of experience and degree; and… by paying them more to work longer school hours, days, and years. In other words, they pay more people for more time.” He concludes: “Researchers, policy makers, pundits, pontificators, and even self-proclaimed thought leaders have yet to conjure some new ‘secret sauce’ or technological innovation that will greatly improve equity, adequacy, and efficiency. Human resources matter, and equitable and adequate financial resources are necessary for hiring and retaining the teachers and other school staff necessary to achieve equal educational opportunity for all children.” (pp. 68-79)

Resseger has more to say about Baker’s analysis of the inadequacy of charter schools as a means to promote equity or even innovation (unless that you think that strict discipline and harsh punishment is innovative).

Based on her incisive review, I am ordering Bruce Baker’s book now. I hope you will do the same.

The name of the game in education is money, and we can’t allow the Reformers to give us the Old Razzle-Dazzle to distract us from what matters most, the money to reduce class sizes, the money to pay teachers a professional salary, the money to have a robust arts program, the money to have up-to-date technology, the money to have a librarian, a school nurse, a social worker, and a psychologist. Money matters. Don’t be fooled into thinking that choice is a substitute!

Those who say that “money doesn’t matter” are always people who already have plenty of money. Bruce Baker explains why it does matter and why we must not be fooled anymore. Every child in this nation should get a good education and that requires money.