The Blind Men And School Funding
Many people know the story of the blind men and the elephant. As the story goes, several blind men each look at one part of an elephant and think it is something way off base. The tail is a rope, the tusk is a spear, the trunk is a tree branch, etc. Though many know the fable well, we are often prone to make the same mistake. For a prime example of this mistake in action, you need not look any further than the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page. The most recent culprit was Brad Desnoyer, a law professor from the University of Missouri-Columbia, in a piece he wrote about school funding.
Like the blind men, Desnoyer looks at one part of school finance and thinks he can explain the whole. This just isn’t so. For instance, he makes the claim that districts with high poverty rates receive less funding than districts with low poverty rates. Sure, if you look at the Clayton School District and the Riverview Gardens School District, this seems correct. However, it is not true when you look at the whole elephant.
Below, I present a table that plots each public school district in the state (charter schools not included). On the Y-axis is 2012 per-pupil expenditure. On the X-axis is percent of students in each district who are eligible for free or reduced price lunches (FRL), a proxy for poverty. As it turns out, school districts with higher poverty rates actually spend more, on average, than those with lower poverty rates. In fact, a 10 percentage point increase in FRL is associated with a $168 increase in per pupil expenditures.
The same is true when you plot the percentage of black students and per-pupil expenditures. Here, a-10 point increase in the percent of black students is associated with a $275 increase in per-pupil expenditures.
Desnoyer cites statistics that indicate we spend less on our impoverished schools. I’m not sure where he gets his statistics (he doesn’t say), but they don’t hold for Missouri. In 2012, we spent an average of $11,099 in the 17 districts with greater than 80 percent of their students receiving free or reduced price lunches (FRL). We spent just $10,179 on the 15 districts with less than 20 percent FRL.
He goes on to suggest we need a “mechanism that guarantees a minimum amount of funding for each district to stay accredited.” What he is suggesting is simply impossible. We do not know how much money it takes for a district to stay accredited. As we saw in Kansas City throughout the 1980s and 1990s, throwing massive amounts of money at a school system does not guarantee success. We do, however, have a mechanism that helps to level out funding and bring poor districts up to a reasonable level — our funding formula.
Either willfully or unknowingly, Desnoyer looks at a few facts and thinks he knows the whole; he does not. School finance is indeed a complicated endeavor and we can have a legitimate conversation about whether we should spend more money on disadvantaged students, but we should not start that conversation with a misstatement of the facts.