An article in today’s LA Times illustrates how the money myth is alive and well. The piece by Seema Mehta focuses on private fund-raising efforts in California that are seeking to off-set proposed budget cuts.
The article, and the people quoted in it, wish to establish 1) that California spends far too little on education, which is demonstrated by the alleged fact that it spends less per pupil than almost all other states; 2) that private fund-raising is necessary to make a significant difference in remedying those perceived shortfalls; and 3) that inequities in the capacity of different communities to engage in private fund-raising is a significant contributor to inequities in student achievement between those communities.
All three of these claims are inconsistent with the available evidence. Mehta attempts to establish the first claim that California spends far less than most states by asserting, “The state ranks 46th in the nation in per-pupil spending.” According to the U.S. Department of Education’s most recent Digest of Education Statistics, total per pupil spending in California ranked 23rd of the 51 states and DC, not 46th. Total per pupil spending was $9,655, trailing the national average of $10,071, but not by much. It’s true that the cost of living is higher in California. Perhaps it would be desirable for California to spend more. But the claim that California woefully under-spends on education would have to be supported by systematic evidence, none of which is provided in the article — other than the false ranking.
The second claim that private fund-raising is an essential part of overcoming budget shortfalls is also inconsistent with the evidence. In a chapter I wrote for Rick Hess’s book on education philanthropy, With the Best of Intentions, I found that total private giving to public education is a tiny portion of total spending on schools. All giving, from the bake sale to the Gates Foundation, makes up less than one-third of 1% of total spending. It’s basically rounding error. This is not to say that private giving to public schools can’t do some good. It’s just completely unrealistic to expect private funding to make-up for or significantly supplement public funding. The taxing power of the government generates over half a trillion dollars each year for public education, which would entirely consume the net worth of the 12 richest people in the world in a single year.
But the LA Times article suggests that private giving can (and must) make a big difference. It cites the example of the Irvine Public Schools, which receives $3 million annually from a community foundation. it also quotes the head of that foundation saying, “The only way to take good districts and make them great is to do private fund-raising. But it’s even more urgent now with the terrible budget cuts.” Nowhere does the article mention that this $3 million represents less than 1% of the total spending by the district. Numerators always feel bigger without denominators.
The third claim that inequities in private fund-raising are exacerbating inequities in student achievement pre-supposes that the private giving makes a big difference in the wealthier districts. It also pre-supposes, contrary to the bulk of rigorous research, that variation in spending is a significant factor in explaining variation in achievement. It’s not. So, if private giving is a tiny portion of total spending — even in the wealthy districts — and per pupil spending does not significantly account for achievement, it’s not clear why the article would fret that inequities in giving were a problem for the achievement gap. But the article does, quoting state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, “Parents in well-to-do communities can raise significant sums of money to augment their local schools’ budgets, while schools in low-income neighborhoods fall further behind. This is part of the reason that we have an achievement gap in California. We have an economic and moral imperative to close this gap.”
The only way the money myth will fade is if reporters and newspapers are held accountable for repeating it.