MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're turning now to one of the biggest questions in public education. What difference does money make in America's schools? Back in 1997, the state of New Jersey was forced to increase spending at some of its poorest districts. Our next story's about what that money has meant to Camden, one of the poorest cities in the U.S. Sarah Gonzalez of member station WNYC reports.
SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Dishea Lightfoot does well in all his classes.
DISHEA: I guess it's just my want for knowledge.
GONZALEZ: He's in eighth grade, 14, with a baby face. And he says he wants to travel.
DISHEA: I want to see, like, amazing places around the country. I want to go to New York. I want to see the Empire State Building.
GONZALEZ: You know, it's like an hour and a half away from here.
DISHEA: Yeah, I know.
GONZALEZ: Dishea's in a program aimed at getting African-American students into private high schools. In the fall, he plans to attend boarding school outside of Camden.
DISHEA: A student that goes here recently got shot, and it was less than 10 blocks away from where I live. I'm not trying to go to high school and have to worry about making it home.
GONZALEZ: Keeping Dishea and his classmates safe and educating them isn't cheap, which is why in 1997 the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered millions of dollars in additional funding to some of the state's poorest districts. This year, Camden is spending $23,000 per student, but Eric Hanushek, who studies education funding at Stanford University, says the state's extra spending hasn't paid off.
ERIC HANUSHEK: They're currently spending two and a half times the national average, and there's no real evidence that they're closing the achievement gap or that they're doing significantly better.
GONZALEZ: A third of seniors in Camden don't graduate on time. More than 90 percent of high school students are not proficient in either language arts or math. But superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard says the additional funding alone was never seen as a solution to improving student performance.
PAYMON ROUHANIFARD: There is this tiresome debate in education - do you fix education to cure poverty, or do you cure poverty to cure education? And I think that's a false dichotomy. You have to address both.
GONZALEZ: He says focusing only on test scores overlooks the good the increase funding has done.
ROUHANIFARD: If you read the stories about Camden from the early '90s, late '80s, it was a really, really horrendous situation. Schools couldn't offer basic meals for their kids. They didn't even have cafeterias. They didn't have basic textbooks.
GONZALEZ: He recently spent $5 million on new textbooks.
ROUHANIFARD: That doesn't translate into student achievement, but we're in a very, very different place.
GONZALEZ: Part of the problem in Camden has been mismanagement. Before Rouhanifard, the district struggled with corruption and went through 13 different superintendents in 20 years. Other poor districts though, aren't just showing improvement, they're performing near the state average, in some cases even better.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Nama, nama, red pajama. She reads a story with his mama.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: He's a baby.
GONZALEZ: One of the biggest successes has come from increased spending on pre-K. Almost every 3 and 4-year-old in the state's poorest districts is enrolled.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Baby llama starts to fret. What does fret mean?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Fret means sad.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Ooh, sad.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Scared.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Scared?
GONZALEZ: Camden spends $35 million on pre-K - that buys two teachers for every 15 students and quality coaches for those teachers. Still, Camden relies heavily on volunteers and donations. Four-year-old Kennedy Parker is picking out a new pink coat donated through her school.
KENNEDY: I always wanted one of these but my parents wouldn't get it for me. Like, these kinds of coats that - strapped like this.
GONZALEZ: Other classes are making their own hats and scarves using district money. School leaders say they're paying for things affluent districts don't need to worry about, and they say figuring out how to improve student performance should be their challenge, not struggling to find funding. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Gonzalez in Camden, N.J.
MARTIN: This story is part of NPR Ed series School Money.