A national authority on school funding testified Thursday he’s seen no proof that putting more money into public education will lead to better outcomes.
Economist Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said he has reviewed some 400 studies correlating funding to student performance.
The vast majority, he said, “give us little reason to be confident that just putting money into the system will have any real impact.”
But then, under continued questioning by a state lawyer who called him as a friendly witness, Hanushek contradicted himself by saying, “There are times that it [money] does matter.”
Hanushek testified for the state government on the next-to-last day of an eight-week trial in which advocacy groups claimed New Mexico is shortchanging its students by inadequately funding public schools. If the plaintiffs win, it could change the way the New Mexico Legislature funds public education.
Allowing for inflation, Hanushek said, the country since 1960 has quadrupled its per-pupil spending, yet national standardized test results for 17-year-olds show that their academic performance has remained flat.
“You would expect, with a quadrupling of resources, to see some improvement in outcomes,” Hanushek said.
His position echoed recent comments made by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who told a Senate subcommittee in June: “The notion that spending more money is going to bring about different results is ill-placed and ill-advised.”
Plaintiffs in the New Mexico case — a coalition of parents, students and school districts, including Santa Fe Public Schools — are asking for more resources for certain programs, and that would increase costs. They want state District Judge Sarah Singleton, who’s presiding in the trial, to order the state to enact reforms. These could include increasing access to pre-K programs, decreasing class sizes and boosting pay for teachers to keep them from bolting to jobs that pay more.
The advocacy groups say these changes would improve student performance in a state that ranks near or at the bottom in most national surveys on public education.
As it stands, the plaintiffs say, state government is not doing enough to help schoolchildren who are most likely to fail or drop out. These include special-education students, English-language learners and those who are economically disadvantaged.
The state has called witnesses who have argued that money will not necessarily make a difference and that the state has implemented a number of reforms that are helping.
Hanushek, for example, said that based on National Assessment of Educational Progress standardized test results, low-income New Mexico students in the eighth grade made gains from 24 percent to 34 percent in math proficiency between 2003 and 2015.
But under cross-examination by Marisa Bono, a lawyer for those who say the state government isn’t doing its job, Hanushek agreed that other standardized test results show that the academic performance of low-income students in New Mexico has stagnated or declined.
Of the studies that counter his argument, he said, “Much of science is focused on how to beat down the other [side’s] studies,” a line that drew laughter.
Friday will be the last day of the trial, which will cost the state more than $3.6 million, according to the Legislative Finance Committee. The plaintiffs called 38 witnesses and the defense 27.
Paul Aguilar, New Mexico’s deputy secretary of education, is scheduled to testify Friday. Former state Education Secretary Hanna Skandera will not testify. Singleton decided Skandera was not needed because she resigned from office two months ago and several high-ranking representatives from the Public Education Department have already testified for the defense.
Singleton will not hear closing arguments. Rather, she has asked both sides to submit briefs for her to read, a process that could take several months. She said it is unlikely she will make a decision until near the end of the year.