Throwing Good Money after Bad

Published March 1, 1999

With education high on everyone’s political agenda, two policy prescriptions heavily promoted as solutions to voter concern about the poor performance of public schools are more money and smaller classes.

Pressure to implement those two costly solutions has intensified as a booming economy has poured a jackpot of budget surpluses into the hands of federal and state politicians. In addition, the news media has fueled the belief that public schools are underfunded with stories of dangerously dilapidated school buildings and teachers who use their own money to buy supplies.

Not surprisingly, “there is a growing cry for greatly increased funding of our public schools,” with the “obvious” conclusion that “more money will make our schools better,” says Arkansas House Speaker Bobby L. Hogue, national chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council, in a forward to the Council’s 1998 Report Card on American Education.

“Sometimes, the obvious isn’t true,” adds Hogue, pointing out that an unprecedented 51 percent increase in inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending over the past 20 years has not led to better-performing schools. The lesson of the last two decades, he says, is that “it is less important how much money is spent, as it is what the money is spent on.” Schools are failing not from lack of money but from lack of vision, standards, discipline, and accountability.

“Throwing good money after bad” to perpetuate such schools “would be the worst investment we could make,” Hogue concludes, reminding legislators that “a bad investment is a bad investment.” Instead, he calls for focusing on more fundamental issues, such as increasing parental involvement in schools and strengthening community involvement.