Many states are currently locked in court battles in which they are being sued to provide "adequate" funding for their schools. These adequacy suits, which have spilled over into legislatures, represent yet another example of a situation where words and slogans do not match reality.
For three decades state school funding has been driven by a series of court cases concerned with fiscal equity. These cases have a common argument: the individual state constitutions require a greater parity in spending between rich and poor school districts than is typically observed under mixed state and local funding.
But the supporters of the lawsuits were dismayed by the end results. In fact, some state legislatures that were required by the courts to equalize spending across districts did not come up to the highest-spending districts but instead kept the overall level constant. The proponents of these suits were unhappy because their desire had been to pry more school spending out of the states.
In reaction to this apparently unfortunate outcome, a new kind of lawsuit and argument developed—the need for adequate spending. Under this new legal strategy, a system could be equalized but could still be inadequate to provide an appropriate education. For example, one group claimed that New York State was not providing the constitutionally required adequate spending to New York City, even though New York City schools were spending more than the average being spent in forty-two states.
For the proponents of greater school spending, adopting the word "adequate" was a great coup, similar to adopting the word "equity" many years before. Surely we all want both equitable and adequate spending.
The crucial ingredient to these arguments is an implicit presumption that spending translates directly to school quality. Unfortunately, a massive amount of evidence indicates that spending on schools is not closely related to school quality or student learning.
How could this be? In the simplest terms there are too few incentives that reward good performance and too few disincentives to penalize poor performance in our public schools. Schools introduce unproven and unproductive programs. They overpay poor teachers (and underpay good teachers). They tolerate ineffective administrators at the state, district, and individual school level. In sum, they do not ensure that any additional funds will be spent in ways that improve student learning.
Because funding is not related either to overall student performance or to the performance of specific groups—minorities, disadvantaged students, or urban students—it is not a good index of equity. Nor is it possible to calculate how much needs to be spent to ensure adequate student performance.
Thus, when legislatures search for adequacy in funding or when courts demand it, they do not realize that it is a search for the Holy Grail—a noble but ultimately futile effort. The proponents of adequacy on the other hand know exactly what is going on. By exploiting this term, they are able to press for greater spending, knowing that whatever is spent now will be insufficient and that more will be needed tomorrow.
When asked to rally around equity and adequacy in education, be skeptical because those words do not mean what you think they do.