Day 14 of the trial over education funding started and ended with an unresolved disagreement over whether the State could enter a 61-page document into the court record. The creator of that document, Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek and Wednesday’s lone witness, based his testimony on his long-standing premise that more money for schools doesn’t equate to better student achievement. Hanushek, who was hired by the State as an expert witness on education policy and finance, has similarly testified on behalf of more than a dozen other states sued for insufficient school funding.
The exhibit contained charts and graphs that were provided to NEWS attorneys after court-imposed deadlines for discovery of documents. NEWS attorney Chris Emch contended that the State had done a “data dump” on the plaintiffs without giving them adequate time to examine the document, which the State used extensively in questioning Hanushek. The State said the document was a distillation of Hanushek’s pre-trial testimony. Judge John Erlick will rule on the admission of the document on Wednesday.
That matter aside, Emch attempted to show how Hanushek had developed his premise without first-hand knowledge of the needs and realities of schools in Washington. Responding to Emch’s questions, the researcher – a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution – said he had never served as a teacher or school administrator, never visited a Washington school, and never talked with a superintendent in any of the 13 example school districts that will be examined in the case.
Emch said someone “on the ground” at the school level has a better sense of a school’s needs than someone not there, a reference to Hanushek. Reading from Hanushek’s deposition, Emch quoted the researcher as saying that he “definitely” believed that “lots of decisions should be made at the school level,” a response that Hanushek retracted in court.
Earlier, Hanushek praised Washington students for their performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, billed as a common yardstick for how the nation’s children perform, and on the SAT. “Washington is in the top plateau – in the top third in the nation” in the NAEP, he said, and ranks No. 1 in the SAT among states in which more than 25 percent of the students take the exam. As for WASL scores, “Washington is expecting more of its students than most of the states,” he said, concluding that “Washington is doing OK but it could be better.”
Using charts and analyses that were included in the disputed document, Hanushek said that per-pupil spending nationally quadrupled between 1960 and 2005 while teacher-pupil ratios dropped and teacher education and experience levels increased. But performance on the NAEP nationally for 17-year-olds has been essentially flat, he said, meaning that overall, “we’ve put all this money in without getting any return.”
Under questioning by John Munich, a St. Louis private attorney hired by the State, Hanushek cited a four-year Tennessee study in which class sizes for primary grades were reduced from between 23 and 25 students to between 14 and 16 students. Achievement levels for the students in the smaller classes compared to those in regular classes was “fairly close,” Hanushek said, and reducing class size by hiring more teachers is “a very, very expensive proposition.”
Rather than class size, the most significant factor in student achievement is “teacher quality,” which does not necessarily mean veteran teachers or educators with advanced degrees, Hanushek said. “A fifth-year teacher on average can be as effective as a 20-year teacher” who is paid substantially more, he said. Later, he said that schools could achieve greater achievement by “eliminating the small number of teachers who are harming our kids” rather than raising pay for all teachers.
He told Munich that the level of school funding needed to reach certain academic outcomes could not be determined, and that studies that attempted to produce a dollar figure were scientifically invalid.
Under cross-examination by Emch, Hanushek said he was not familiar with Washington’s academic standards that are embodied in HB 1209, nor with the Essential Academic Learning Requirements. The researcher said that perhaps 3.5 percent of Washington students take the NAEP, a federal test in certain grades and topics given to a sampling of the nation’s students, and only self-selected students take the SAT.
Responding to other questions by Emch, Hanushek said that buildings, textbooks, teachers, technology and other costs were necessary to operate schools. Money could improve performance, as well as attract and retain good teachers, he said, “if spent wisely… The problem is how to find out if money is spent well.”
Hanushek said he could not think of any studies showing the positive impact of athletic, art, music or other co-curricular activities on student achievement.
Near the end of his testimony, Hanushek told Judge Erlick that Washington has “fallen lower down on the rankings” in funding of schools. But that’s not a bad thing, he added, because “if you keep high achievement and spend less, that’s what everyone wants to do. But that’s a separate issue.”
Coming up on Thursday: David Armor, professor of public policy in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University, and Edmonds School District Superintendent Nick Brossoit are expected to testify.