MONEY DOESN’T MATTER- A RETREAT

Erik Hanushek is an expert on public policy and educational matters. I met Rick a number of years ago attending an AEFA (American Educational Finance Association) conference. I was there as a leader in Pennsylvania’s equity suit in the early 1990’s. He had just produced a controversial book reflecting his conclusion that money does not matter in the successful education of our children.

He accumulated many critics for saying, what was then, an anti-holy grail philosophy. I was aghast at his conclusions and developed a rationale to combat this apostate view of how children did not really need resources to succeed. It all seemed like common sense to me. Rick did not stand alone in this conflict.

Folks like Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch, high flying members of the administration of Ronald Reagan and Geoge HW Bush, believed the same thing. I could have spit wooden nickels at the mention of those things that were so diametrically opposed to what I was fighting for in Pennsylvania.

My own experiences on the ground showed me that those poor and rural schools without resources could not compete with any of the mostly wealthy school districts in the Eastern part of the state. My focus was on their defense and a need to bolster their coffers with state dollars. In some cases the extra money changed the nature of how things worked in a school district. There were more courses, newer technology, extra staff and so on. It looked like money solved a bunch of problems for these school districts. I was riding high on a cloud of increased state revenue for my clients.

However, there were some school districts that seemed to stay in the same rut. They mostly squirreled the money away for some rainy day in the far distant future. It is only this year, twenty years later that the distant future has come to pass. Pennsylvania’s rural schools are in a mess because of a lack of funding and no state budget in sight.

Although Rick has moderated his view over the years, as have I, he still maintains that money is not the complete answer to problems in education. My view is coming ever to much closer to his. Having gone through the first 15 years of the 21st century, I can say that there is an even more important component to how well children will do in school. That will be the leadership of the school district and the individual schools. It is true that poverty is significant to a great degree and that is something that school people and others can’t fix. However, I have seen over the past 35 years that poverty can be overcome to some extent.

Here is one example of the many that I have run across. A young man took charge of an elementary school in the Harrisburg School District. The school is one of many schools in the district. It is filled with children from poverty stricken homes. His enthusiasm and intelligence bled into the entire staff and the community. He augmented his resources by working with a group called the Harrisburg Public School Foundation. Along with help from a local college education dean, he has transformed the school in a short period of time. I have seen it done time after time in rural, urban and suburban school districts. The sad part is that when that person leaves, things seem to go back to the way they were. I have had a similar experience in my own career.

So, I have made my peace with Erik Hanushek of Stanford University. Funny how those things work.

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