As part of a growing trend seen across the United States, several school districts in Missouri continue to perform poorly, failing to prepare students for higher education. Following the Saint Louis Public Schools’ recent loss of accreditation, Missourians want to see change and improvement more than ever. Concern for Missouri’s public school system, however, is not a new development. The past 50 years have seen the rise of several theories on how to promote educational quality — among them, a competitive parental choice environment, which fosters incentives for educators to improve school quality. Unfortunately, the recent adequacy lawsuit trend mistakenly focuses on money, rather than encouraging changes that are needed to improve Missouri schools. To help the public schools succeed, Missouri should focus on incentive-based reforms like parental choice, rather than adequacy litigation.
Adequacy lawsuits have quickly gained popularity among school administrators and educators. The suits claim that current state funding cannot provide an “adequate” education for students, and prescribe a solution: give school districts more money. Although a current adequacy case in Missouri is still pending, several cases in other states — and an older equity case in Missouri — have favored the plaintiffs, granting more money to school districts. This type of substantial increase in financial resources is understandably appealing to many education supporters, but does not lead to the type of restructuring needed to truly change the education system. The amount of funding is not nearly as critical as the way that funding is spent. Until reforms are enacted that change the latter, current conditions will persist.
A statistically significant relationship between expenditure and student performance has yet to be consistently demonstrated. This should not be surprising; when schools receive additional funding despite disappointing educational outcomes and little promise of positive future developments, school officials lack the incentive to develop programs that will improve student performance. When schools are rewarded in spite of failure, they will only continue to misallocate resources to programs that are not in their students’ best interests.
Adequacy litigation not only fails to improve student performance but also costs the state and its taxpayers. A study released in July 2007 by the Tax Foundation discusses the fiscal impact of school finance litigation in the U.S. According to the study, nine out of 27 states ordered to increase educational funding did so by increasing taxes by $13 billion annually. Missouri is among these nine states. The study also points out that “even a hefty, short-term increase in education spending to comply with a court order does not always translate into permanently higher levels of spending.”
Rather than tolerating an approach that rewards poor performance, officials need to push for reforms that increase parental involvement, teacher quality, and students’ motivation to learn. An education system that allows parents to choose the schools their children attend will lead not only to a higher level of parental involvement, but also to better schools. As several school choice studies discuss, increased competition encourages all schools to provide higher educational quality in their efforts to attract students. When faced with competition from other schools, educators will allocate funds to programs with the most successful outcomes, because failure to do this will give parents an incentive to send their children to better-performing schools. Schools with a poor performance record will lose funding. This type of market-based reform motivates officials to improve educational standards while efficiently using resources.
While school choice reforms would take more time and effort than a simple increase in funding, they are necessary to turn underperforming schools into an educational system that will successfully prepare Missouri students for higher education and a competitive labor market.
Kathleen Navin is an intern with the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri think tank, and a graduate student in economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia.