According to social science research quoted by State experts, increased funding for education has no discernible relationship to student performance. And Washington’s public schools apparently have adequate resources, based on observations of facilities and teachers. This is what the State maintained through its presentation of witnesses on Day 21 of the trial over education funding.
Using two out-of-state expert witnesses who will be paid a maximum of $80,000 each – and who were questioned by a Missouri lawyer also hired by the State – the State attempted to undercut testimony over the past six weeks from witnesses for the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools. The NEWS witnesses, including State education officials and four school district superintendents, described a chronic shortage of funding from Olympia and the failure by the State to meet its constitutional duty to fully fund K-12 schools.
But economist Robert Costrell, the State’s first witness on Tuesday, repeatedly said that the belief that a certain level of student performance could be achieved by increasing education funding was based on a “flawed premise.” There is “no systemic relationship” between input – dollars – and output – achievement, said Costrell, professor of education reform and economics at the University of Arkansas. Such a relationship has “eluded social scientists for 40-odd years.”
Questioned by John Munich, a St. Louis private attorney hired by the State, Costrell said his examination of school funding and test scores in Washington replicated his findings in other states. He based his trial research on the Washington Adequacy Funding Study, published by David Conley of the Educational Policy Improvement Center. Conley’s study sought to determine the amount of money needed to amply provide for the education of all children, as mandated by the Washington Constitution.
Costrell said various methodologies for “costing out” studies were flawed. Those that rely on professional judgment – asking educators what resources they need to achieve a certain level of performance – are “non-scientific” and often amount to a “wish list,” he said. The evidence-based approach also fails, he contended, because the research upon which it is based is highly variable “and the bar is set extremely low.” Costrell said the “successful schools” method also has drawbacks; in an area with high socio-economics, students might succeed because of their background, not because of their schools.
In Washington, “exemplar schools don’t spend more than average schools,” nor do they have lower teacher-student ratios, Costrell said, using charts to illustrate his point. “There are huge variations in performance for the same expenditure level.” That shows that something is “going on in high-performing schools that’s not happening in low-performing schools.” In contrast to costing-out studies, Costrell said that HB 2261, the new Washington law that seeks a new definition and funding method for K-12 education, is a “thoughtful and deliberative data-based process.”
Under cross examination by NEWS attorney Chris Emch, Costrell indicated he did not have much familiarity with the Basic Education Finance Task Force, the group created by the 2007 Legislature to study whether the State is meeting its constitutional duty to amply fund education for all children, or the task force’s report. Costrell also was unfamiliar with several other reports examining K-12 funding in Washington that have been cited in the trial.
Costrell told Emch that he has never been a K-12 education employee, could not evaluate the efficiency of Washington’s schools and had no opinion on whether students were receiving an adequate education. He was unfamiliar with Washington’s education reform laws and assessments and could not say whether the State was underfunding K-12 education. Washington should look at non-monetary ways to improve achievement, looking at how successful schools demonstrate leadership, clarity of mission and focus on students, Costrell said, “much of which is far more important than the money.”
Saying he sought a “bottom line opinion,” Judge John Erlick asked Costrell if “the studies on scientifically acceptable schools show that increased spending does not ipso facto increase student performance.” Replied Costrell: “Another way of saying that is to say that the type of studies you refer to has not discerned a systematic relationship.” Judge Erlick later said that if there are diminishing returns at a certain point in school funding, is there “a minimum amount of money (needed) to create an acceptable amount of achievement? How do you find that?” Look for schools that are “doing pretty well” through a “value-added analysis,” Costrell said. “See what they’re spending there.”
The State’s other main witness on Tuesday, John Murphy, a former superintendent for several decades in various East Coast school districts, discussed his site visits to the Chimacum, Edmonds, Issaquah and Renton school districts. Those are four of the 13 representative Washington districts that are under examination in the trial. Murphy, the Superintendent-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, has testified at school funding lawsuits in numerous states, as has Costrell.
Murphy said he visited about half the schools in the four Washington districts and spent about seven to 10 minutes in whatever classroom he entered. With Munich showing dozens of Murphy’s photos on a courtroom screen, Murphy invariably described the schools as “very attractive” and “well maintained,” with “adequate space” and little to impede the learning process.
He said he found no problem with the use of portable classrooms or the age of library books. “Some books are going to be old. Shakespeare wrote his a long time ago,” Murphy said. “And you can get the latest information (through) technology.” He expected districts to have “some kind of ‘geek squad’ available” to keep technology working, based on his review of staffing reports listing technical support staff members.
Overall, “I was very impressed,” he said. “It’s obvious you have good, strong central leadership, excellent instructional leadership (in) principals, excellent teachers, students responding positively to standards being set.”
Under cross examination by Emch, Murphy said he could not tell if the school resources he viewed were paid by State, local, parent or teacher sources. He said he was not expressing opinions about school funding but believes “American education has to reexamine the entire delivery system” of education. The persistent gap “between haves and have-nots has remained the last 40 years despite additional expenditures,” he said, calling for rigorous standards and an individualized program of teaching.
Asked by Emch if Washington’s level of student achievement was acceptable in the districts he visited, Murphy first said that Washington’s standards are much higher than the rest of the nation’s. Given that, he said, Washington residents are “not to be alarmed.” Asked again by Emch if the test scores were acceptable, he answered yes.
Coming up on Wednesday: More State expert witnesses plus Eldon Lonborg, former superintendent in the Oakville School District, will resume his testimony.