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While research is mixed on whether increases in school spending lead to better results for students, a study suggests that influxes of dollars from court decisions lead to higher graduation rates and earnings, especially for low-income students. How much more? The justices didn’t say. But the case presumes that more money will lead to a better education — and thus better college and life prospects — for every student in the state. Does the research on school spending warrant that optimism? It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. While many wealthy parents don’t question whether money matters when they shell out big bucks for private schools, researchers have debated the role of money in public education for a half-century. Many studies have failed to find a consistent relationship between increased spending and improved test scores, which has led some policymakers to conclude that money doesn’t matter — even in states like Washington, where the investment in education, compared with other states, has been average or below for many years. But a new study, recently published in a leading economics journal, used a fresh approach that found strong ties between spending and results, and may also explain why past studies failed to find a strong relationship between the two. That study has direct bearing on what’s happening here because it focuses on what happened in school districts after state supreme courts ordered higher spending. In short, the researchers found that students in districts with bigger windfalls did better, on average, than students from other districts in the same state that got less. They spent more time in school, for example, and had higher wages as adults. The study, published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, is the first to show the long-term effects of school spending. Lead author Kirabo Jackson of Northwestern University and his co-authors, Rucker Johnson at the University of California, Berkeley, and Claudia Persico at Northwestern, don’t claim to have the last word on spending and achievement. But Jackson says their study is important because it demonstrates long-term results and uncovers flaws in many past studies. “If you have people going out there testifying to legislators that money does not matter and there’s no evidence out there that money matters, then it’s germane to the conversation,” Jackson said. National report The debate over the benefits of school funding began about 50 years ago with a report ordered by Congress to look at the effect of racial segregation on students. Named after its lead researcher, James Coleman, of Johns Hopkins University, the two-year national study reached several conclusions about the power of schools to change students’ lives — including the fact that family income predicts academic success better than where Coleman’s study also was the first national study to suggest that there is no connection between the amount of money spent per student and how well students perform on tests. That finding has been confirmed in some follow-up studies and contradicted by others, which is frustrating for lawmakers who want clear answers. The mixed results reflect a serious limitation that’s easy to miss in the fancy equations: researchers don’t understand how teaching produces learning. The process is obviously more complicated than building a car, but economists disagree about what to measure and how to judge whether investments in education are productive. “We know that (education) is different, but we’re not sure exactly how and in what ways it happens,” said Margaret Plecki, a University of Washington school-finance expert. Another challenge is that increases in spending often are tied to changes in a district’s population — like an increase in the number of students from low-income f


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