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Op-Ed: Society Benefits When We Spend More on Education


This commentary was first published on March 26, 2015 by The New York Times.

The promise of equal opportunity, most especially in education, is at the heart of the American dream: If you study and work hard, the promise goes, you can achieve your aspirations.

Yet our schools are among the most unequally funded in the industrialized world, with some states spending more than double what others spend per pupil, and some districts within each state spending double or triple what others can allocate.

Proper funding can, in many cases, eliminate the gap in adult outcomes between those raised in poor and in non-poor families.

Worse still, many states spend less in school districts that serve low-income students and new immigrants who need more support to succeed. While some students attend spacious, well-outfitted schools with extensive libraries, science labs, computers and small classes, others attend crumbling, overcrowded buildings where they lack access to basic textbooks and trained teachers.

More than 40 states have experienced school funding lawsuits about these unjust conditions, and in each case, defense attorneys bring in experts who argue that money doesn’t make a difference. Yet money that is properly spent on the right educational resources for students who need them the most — especially on well-qualified educators and keeping classes at reasonable sizes — can make a huge difference.

A recent study of school funding reforms over the last 40 years or so shows just how much of a difference money can make: For low-income students who spent all 12 years of school in districts that increased their spending by 20 percent as a result of court-ordered reforms, graduation rates rose by 23 percentage points and adult poverty rates fell by 20 percentage points. The students’ family incomes were about 52 percent higher than they would have been without the greater education investment. The effects were large enough in many cases to entirely eliminate the gap in adult outcomes between those raised in poor families and those raised in non-poor families.

When young people are gainfully employed rather than in prison or on welfare, when they are earning higher wages and paying greater taxes that support the retirement, health care and social needs of other citizens, everyone wins. Money, invested well in education, makes an enormous difference to the welfare of everyone in our society.