AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Imagine for a second a different world where struggling schools throughout the country suddenly have all the money they need. What would happen? Would they stop struggling? Would student test scores and graduation rates immediately go up? Well, for our series School Money, Cory Turner and the NPR Ed team have been working with 20 member station reporters across the country. They've been investigating big spending gaps between schools and the impact they have on the nation's children. Cory joins me now in the studio. Welcome.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Thank you, Audie.
CORNISH: So as you've reported before, a big reason for the difference in spending is the reliance of school districts on local property taxes. And I guess now you're asking whether that money really matters.
TURNER: Yeah, it's a big question, Audie, and the answer isn't nearly as clear-cut as we used to think. Over the past few decades, most researchers who have studied the question have come to the conclusion that no, it doesn't really matter. There's very little correlation between spending and student achievement. And we've even seen some high-profile examples of large, struggling school districts that have gotten big boosts in spending and have seen very little academic progress as a result.
CORNISH: Talk about one of those examples.
TURNER: Sure. We have one in the project this week from New Jersey. In the '90s, there was a big school funding lawsuit there, and the state Supreme Court basically said, you need to spend more money in your poorest districts. Among them was Camden. Today, the district spends $23,000 per student, which is at least twice the national average. And the problem is in - at least in terms of student achievement, they don't have a lot to show for it. Today, a third of seniors in Camden don't graduate on time and more than 90 percent of high school students there are not proficient in either math or English.
CORNISH: And you say there's been a lot of research into this. I mean, do we know it's the school's fault?
TURNER: Yeah, so what we did is we asked member station reporter Sarah Gonzalez from WNYC to go to Camden and do some reporting. And she found a really complicated story - a mixed message, really. In part, it is the district's fault. There's a lot of evidence of previous mismanagement. Over roughly a 20-year period, they had 13 superintendents.
But there's also a huge factor at play here, and that's poverty because nearly half of the students in Camden live in poverty. And nearly all of them qualify for free or reduced price lunch, which means almost all of them are living in low-income households. Sarah talked with Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, who said there's another problem with the district, which is it couldn't even provide basics not that long ago.
PAYMON 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.
TURNER: And so, Audie, what that means is Camden has spent a lot of this extra money trying to catch up. And it's also spending that money on supports that other districts just don't have to think about. I mean, right now they're providing free pre-K for every 3 and 4-year-old. There's also free breakfast, free lunch. Some kids get free dinner at their Camden school.
And lots of other wildcards - it reminds me of a school I visited last year in Iowa that had a free health clinic and a food pantry inside because - I mean, frankly, this isn't a Canton problem. This is a U.S. problem. One in 5 kids in this country lives in poverty.
CORNISH: But now you're getting into the social safety net. And is there agreement about whether or not schools should shoulder this burden of America's poverty?
TURNER: No, there's no agreement. This may be the single most important question in education today, which is what is our school's obligation to help kids in poverty? I want to play a cut of tape for you that comes from another reporter, Claire McInerny in Indiana. She recorded it last year when the state voted to cut back on some of the extra money it sends to districts who serve disadvantaged kids. This is State Rep. Tim Brown, a Republican, speaking at a press conference.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TIM BROWN: You know, one of the things about education is money to help those kids that are outside the educational problem, you know? Did Mary's mother get arrested the night before? Did Johnny not come with shoes to school? Those sorts of things - those aren't, to me, core issues of education.
TURNER: Now, Audie, Brown did go on to say that of course they affect education, but that the help these kids need should come from outside groups and not necessarily from schools. That said, it's important to point out through this project, we've heard from lots of superintendents and teachers and parents in high-poverty school districts who say, look, like it or not, poverty is an educational problem.
CORNISH: But to go back to something you said earlier, you've got Camden spending two-and-a-half times the national average, no evidence of closing the achievement gap. Do you have a school where you actually found they spent money and it actually made a difference closing an achievement gap?
TURNER: I do. I do. It's in Revere, Mass. Back in the early '90s, the state basically hit the reset button on how they pay for their public schools. I'm going to play a cut of tape here from 1993. This is then Republican Gov. William Weld.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WILLIAM WELD: A good education in a safe environment is the magic wand that brings opportunity. It's up to us to make sure that wand is waived over every cradle.
TURNER: Now, Audie, a big part of this was really targeting extra money to districts that serve disadvantaged kids. And I know that in Revere's case, they spent a lot of that money on teachers and teacher training, curriculum redevelopment. It was a really big overhaul of the system there in Revere. And the district says they've got results to prove it worked. Nearly 90 percent of high school grads go on to some form of post-secondary education in Revere, and that's a big improvement from where was before they got the money, around 70 percent.
CORNISH: Cory, you've told us a story of two cities. Both poured a lot of money into their school districts. What can we learn here about whether that spending can actually make a difference in the long run?
TURNER: Yeah, Audie, obviously it's complicated. And there are lots of differences between these two districts that help explain why you saw academic improvement in Revere and not so much in Camden. Camden was starting from a much greater deficit. You know, they couldn't even provide some basic services. That said, I think we also really have to ask ourselves, how do we measure success? Is it just test scores?
Because there's a relatively recent study out of Northwestern and UC Berkeley where researchers said forget test scores - why don't we measure life outcomes? Why don't we see what happens to these kids who were in school for big funding increases? What happens when they're adults? Do they earn more money? Are they incarcerated at lower rates? More meaningful stuff, really, than test scores.
And what they found is yeah, actually school money can make a big difference, specifically for low-income kids. I'm talking about increasing the likelihood that they would graduate from high school by 10 points and a nearly 10 percent increase in their adult earnings. Now the benefits were statistically insignificant for non-poor kids, but I think coming full circle, to answer the question we started with, for low-income kids yeah, money can make a difference.
CORNISH: And we're going to be hearing more about this reporting throughout the week. That's Cory Turner with the NPR Ed team. Cory, thank you.
TURNER: Thank you, Audie.
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