Editorial: You can't throw money at War on Poverty

The Detroit News

A damning new study dispels the myth that more money is the cure for education’s failures. The report took a comprehensive look at 50 years of testing data and found that even after spending hundreds of billions of dollars, the opportunity gap among students remains as wide as ever.

Starting with President Lyndon Johnson and the War on Poverty, the U.S. government has taken a much more active role in helping children overcome economic hardship and succeed in school.

The fact these gaps remain so stark after decades of federal intervention should be a wake-up call to politicians and policymakers. And while it could be argued that without the infusion of money, the gap would have become worse, the goal was never to maintain the status quo. 

In this Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 photo, third graders read as they sit on Hokki Stools in a classroom at Best Elementary, in Houston.

“The whole point of the War on Poverty was to close achievement gaps,” says Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a lead author of the study.

Hanushek, a scholar in the economics of education, says he was “startled” to find the achievement gaps haven’t narrowed at all.

In the report “The achievement gap fails to close,” published by Education Next, the authors dig through data to study the War on Poverty’s impact — something that hadn't been done previously to this extent.

“We find the opportunity gap — that is, the relationship between socioeconomic status and achievement — has not grown over the past 50 years,” they write. “But neither has it closed. Instead, the gap between the haves and have-nots has persisted. The stubborn endurance of achievement inequalities suggests the need to reconsider policies and practices aimed at shrinking the gap.”

The authors found that since 1980 (and the creation of the Department of Education), the federal government has spent nearly $500 billion on compensatory education and $250 billion on Head Start, the preschool program for low-income children.

Some of the key findings:

  • Opportunity gap is unwavering: "The authors looked at the gap between the top and bottom tenths of the socioeconomic distribution (the 90-10 gap) and the top and bottom quarters (the 75-25 gap). They found very little difference in disparities between the cohort of students born in 1954 and the students born in 2001."
  • Disadvantaged students remain years behind: "The 90-10 gap is equivalent to three to four years of learning. The 75-25 gap amounts to over two-and-a-half years of learning." 
  • Gaps between other subgroups unchanged: "The authors found a persistent achievement gap between students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch compared with those who are not eligible; they also highlight the black-white achievement gap has plateaued for the past 25 years."

For Hanushek and other free-market education scholars, these findings — while alarming — aren’t entirely surprising. The consensus is typically that funding alone is not an effective way to improve student performance.

Lindsey Burke, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy, says these latest findings are “pretty stark” but they fall in line with other research she’s done related to federal attempts to close achievement gaps.

That effort has cost taxpayers $2 trillion since Johnson stepped up the federal government’s role in public schools. 

And despite a tripling of inflation-adjusted spending on education since 1970, student performance has flat-lined across the board.

Clearly, the best intentions of politicians aren’t paying off and they haven’t for decades. Doubling down on the same policies will continue failing low-income students. More innovative solutions are needed.