Court case exposes myth that education linked to money

While state legislatures across the country face major budget shortfalls, a little-known court case will be heard this month that could completely change the way Washington state finances public education.

McCleary vs. the State of Washington joins the ranks of countless other “adequacy” lawsuits around the country that place legislators under fire for more school funding.

A host of school districts, teachers unions, and other organizations have come together to sue the state, calling themselves the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS).

NEWS highlights what we already know — public education is a leaky bucket, requiring ever-increasing dollars in exchange for no increase in quality.

But NEWS isn’t just asking for more money. Proponents want a court order requiring the Legislature to determine the exact per-student cost of providing basic education — to the penny.

From there, the state would have to foot the bill.

This trial raises a number of issues. It calls into question the role of the courts and their ability to direct the Legislature; it reflects the tension between state-mandated equity and local control in education; and it even disputes what dictionary to use when interpreting the Constitution.

But the principal issue at stake in the trial is the assumption that more money yields better results. This relationship between dollars spent and student performance plays a critical role in all adequacy litigation.

Whether through direct pleas for more dollars or subtle advocacy for reallocation of school funding, these lawsuits ultimately come back to increasing education spending.

The crux of the argument? The bucket is leaking, so we need to throw in more water.

NEWS claims that Washington has not met its constitutional requirement to provide “ample provision” for basic education statewide.

According them, schools lack the resources needed to get the job done.

NEWS also claims that the dollars that are available aren’t being spent well. According to NEWS, the fact that less than 100 percent of students pass the WASL means that the Legislature is in violation of the constitution.

They offer a trimmed education budget and less spending on education than other states as further evidence of this claim.

NEWS’ proposed solution? More money and more state directives.

While there are certainly problems with our education system, this prescription simply threatens to make matters worse by ignoring meaningful issues and moving decision-making further away from the schools.

If the state is going to put a price tag on education, they must decide in advance what to buy.

This leaves little room for teachers to experiment or adapt to their students, whom legislators will never see.

In the end, NEWS’ position rests on the notion that education is best organized far from the classroom, leaving the state making the important decisions and teachers simply complying with a pre-determined program.

This top-down structure has made money all but useless to teachers, despite what the plaintiffs say.

When asked, some educators admit they’d just as soon not take additional funds because of the strings attached to the money—strings that get in the way of doing their jobs.

What’s more, a study done by Alfred A. Lindseth reports that adequacy decisions have failed to increase test scores while at the same time actually hurting graduation rates.

What’s more, the famous “Coleman Study” published in 1964 proved that there is no real relationship between spending and student achievement.

Still, the current trend in education is to focus on resources inputs rather than basing policy on real academic outcomes.

Ultimately, the quality of education depends on the ability of teachers to impact their students.

There are serious problems with our public education system and the way it spends taxpayers’ money. But adequacy litigation is no solution and will likely make matters worse.

The last thing we need is more leaks in our education bucket.

Bryan Leonard is an intern with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.