In 2013, California launched a plan to increase school funding to districts serving lower-income students. While the funding did succeed in moving more dollars to lower-income school districts, a new study makes the case that the $23 billion investment didn't just fail but backfired—at least in terms of student learning. Researchers JoonHo Lee (University of Alabama), Bruce Fuller, and Sophia Rabe-Hesketh (University of California, Berkeley) seek to explain why.
The legislation may have been doomed from the start, having provided no clear direction on how districts should spend their new dollars. District and school leaders made some choices that ended up causing further stagnation—and for some subgroups, actual increases—in opportunity gaps. When splitting students by race, native language, or economic status, the researchers found that disparities persisted and even widened in high-need schools. These findings are supported by additional research reporting growing gaps in math.
Why did the new spending fail?
- While districts and schools expanded hiring, more is not always better, as California already learned in its disastrous class size initiative in the 90s. Districts often had to scramble to fill vacancies with long-term substitutes and inexperienced teachers.
- While high schools were able to offer more differentiated courses, school leaders placed a higher priority on adding lower level or remedial courses while foregoing more college prep, leading to a decline in the proportion of college-prep offerings.
- English Learners directly felt the negative impact of both these trends. After the funding, they were more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers and less likely to take college preparatory courses.
The researchers may have taken too narrow a view of what success looked like by only considering college preparation. However, $23 billion is too much for schools to fail at improving student outcomes. It's a shame to see so much money do so little good.