School Funding Myth #1: Money doesn’t buy a good education

Recently, I wrote about the ways in which basing school funding on property values in the United States makes it near-certain that schools will be funded inequitably. Placing decision-making about school funding in the hands of a patchwork of state and local governments simply increases that certainty.

At this point in the discussion, people often will bring up some predictable objections to any implication that the funding of US schools might be inadequate or ill-advised.

The first one I normally encounter is the one that says, Money doesn’tnecessarily buy a good education.

This is undoubtedly true in some cases—and unfortunately one need look no farther than the Kansas City, MO School District for a glaring, recent example of this precept. In the latter part of the 20th century, the KCMO district went through aprotracted desegregation lawsuit. At the end of this case, it reaped a windfallsettlement of massive proportions, which it proceeded to waste in spectacular fashion.


Kansas City’s East High School had to close early several
times in August, because it has no air conditioning.
With all its newfound wealth, it decided to replace several of its aging, dilapidated schools with new, modern, state-of-the-art buildings. However, very little of this money seemed to go for anything else. Not teacher salaries. Not curricular materials of any substance. And not even all buildings were treated equally. Just last month, two schools in the district had to close early on hot days, because they still aren’t air-conditioned!
No, money and wisdom do not necessarily go hand-in-hand! That said, however, it isextremely difficult to offer a first-class education when you only havesecond-or third-class funding. 

Here are some examples of why this is so:

At some point, even the best teacher
can be overwhelmed by class size.
Class size: There are people who will hotly argue over how much of a difference class size makes, claiming a good teacher is much more important than class size for student outcomes. I certainly will agree that if you have to focus on only one of those, teacher quality is the one to choose. 

But I guarantee you’ll get better teaching from any teacher alive, if s/he is not trying to give individualized attention to 40 or 50 students all at once–especially when some of those students don’t want to be there or pay attention! 

Technology costs are a burden for nearly any public school.

Technology: Staying current with technology is challenging enough for many businesses, but it is a perennial headache for schools–most especially for schools in poorer districts! I have written elsewhere about the antiquated computers at one of the urban schools where I have taught–but that school was typical. 

A frequent complaint of the business community is that schools are not adequately preparing students with the skills they need to succeed in the business world. Certainly basic math, science, and writing skills are important aspects of that gap–but knowledge of computer skills also is essential. 

The “digital divide” is a direct result of access to resources.


The “digital divide” between richer and poorer schools is often painfully obvious. However, in my experience even some of the more well-to-do public school districts may find keeping up with technology’s costs to be a continual challenge when the state funding is cut year after year.

Other Curriculum Materials and Equipment: Technology isn’t the only thing that costs money. Traditional, paper-based books keep going up in price–especially textbooks. So are many other types of necessary school equipment. For example, have you ever priced library-quality equipment of any kind? 

One of the traditional complaints of the old, pre-Brown v. Board of Education segregated schools was that the black kids got old, torn-up school books after the white kids were done with them. We like to think we are better off now (though in too many cases we’ve made way less progress than we want to believe). But then as now, the price tag for high-quality educational materials is more than some schools can afford. 

Field trips can open kids’ eyes to the world in unique
and powerful ways–IF their school can afford it.

Field Trips: Transportation and other expenses, such as hiring substitutes for the teachers on the trip (when not all of their students may be able to go) make school field trips an expensive proposition. Some schools simply don’t have them anymore. Others have dramatically cut back on them.

Museums, zoos, and similar institutions have had to shoulder an increasing share of the costs involved, but both they and schools have felt the pinch of restricted funding, especially since the beginning of the recession. 

The “informal learning” offered by field trips, even though it is shown by many studies to be powerful and inspiring, is less and less available where funds are restricted.

Two other areas, building maintenance and teacher compensation, also come with hefty price tags. All too often, this means buildings in poorer districts go unrepaired indefinitely, and teachers are not paid adequately. These are topics worthy of much more space than I have left for this post–but I hope I have made my point.

More money may not always “buy” good education, but it certainly increases the odds that it can happen! And there are minimum levels below which we slash educational budgets at our peril.


PHOTO CREDITS: The school funding graphic is from the website Krug for WisconsinKMBC-TV provided the image of the overheated East High School in Kansas City, MO. The cartoon on class size is from  Choccy’s Blog on Libcom.org. The Cult of Mac blog provided the iPad-with-dollar-signs image. The “digital divide” image is courtesy of the Bridging the Digital Divide with Online Education blog. And the field trip photo is from the City of Gresham, OR website. MANY THANKS to all of them!

Philosophical Differences

Why do so many students dislike school?

Many people have ideas about this. Some are noted experts who write books on the subject. It isn’t often that I read two books within just a few weeks of each other, whose authors are so far apart from each other in opinions and approaches. But recently I did.

The books are Why Don’t Students Like School? By Daniel T. Willlingham, and Unschooling Rules, by Clark Aldrich.  


Viewpoint #1: Willingham
Mastering subject matter is hard, and it
takes a long time.

Daniel Willingham is a noted researcher in cognitive science, and a professor of psychology at the University of Virgina. 

His underlying conclusion seems to be, essentially, that students don’t like school because mastery of subject matter is hard, and it takes a long time. The idea here is that if it isn’t fairly quick and easy, they prefer not to stick to the effort.

He strongly argues that learning facts—presumably via the traditional, you-will-be-tested-on-these-facts approach—is essential to mastery, and that mastery of a discipline is the whole point of education. 

He is not greatly enchanted with the school of thought that talks about teaching “thinking skills,” because as he points out, you cannot develop such skills without first learning facts.


Viewpoint #2: Aldrich
Kids are pre-programmed to learn. 
Schools don’t nurture that innate curiosity too well.

Clark Aldrich is a noted education-reform expert, described in his author biography as a “global education thought leader.” He is a respected speaker, facilitator, and writer who works with business groups, government agencies, and academic organizations. 

His underlying conclusion seems to be, essentially, that students come hard-wired with a deep and abiding curiosity about the world, and that the job of the educator is to channel that drive to learn, in order to harness its power—not only for mastery, but for a person’s better life. Students don’t like schools when the schools do not engage their drive to learn.

He contends that “there are three different types of learning: learning to be, learning to do, and learning to know,” and identifies the third as the kind of learning that is concerned with facts. Moreover, “Traditional schools’ forte, learning to know, can come only after learning to be and learning to do have successfully begun” (pp. 7-8). That is, they start with the wrong kind of learning.


What are we saying to kids?
“Buckle Down!” vs. “Explore!”

For me, these two books crystallize two different education approaches that have grown out of our expanding understanding of how the human brain works. 

Although he writes about the brain in an interesting and authoritative way, Willingham seems to represent the group that retains faith in traditional forms of schooling–what I’ve called the “paradigm of control” in earlier posts. They see unmotivated kids in their classes as basically lazy. 

Aldrich advocates for an alternative way of “doing school,” which is more individual in its approach than traditional school as we currently know it. He and others who think like him see unmotivated kids as people who have not been able to connect with their innate drive to learn.

I am a longtime teacher and practitioner of the arts. For me, the idea of long hours of hard work undertaken for no other reward than mastering a skill–and finding joy in that–is really not strange. 

This is because I know that hard work doesn’t have to be the same thing as boring drudgery. 

Okay, practicing arpeggios or learning to hit the basket every time (even if it requires thousands of missed baskets) may sometimes seem like drudgery.  But for a person who is passionately interested in music or basketball, the arpeggios and the practice-baskets are not the point

One practices them for the same reason someone fascinated with chemistry memorizes the periodic table, or someone enchanted with the precision of numbers learns to figure algorithms. 

It isn’t so we can pass a test on them. (Not EVER). It’s because we need that ability, knowledge or skill to explore our chosen interest more fluently. 

For my money, this is the kind of education every child and adult needs to experience, and which very few schools manage to deliver reliably. Whether it is flute-playing, basketball, higher math, or almost anything, when our interest and drive to learn is engaged, we learn all we can about it, and eventually achieve mastery, because we are fascinated.

PHOTO CREDITS: Cover art for the two books comes from the Rainy Day Books website. The image of three girls playing flutes came from the website of Grosvenor School, an independent day school in South Nottingham. The photo of little Kai practicing baskets is from the blog, “The Adventures of Stinky Mouse and Go Jee.” Many thanks to all!