Fact check

Why the school spending graph Betsy DeVos is sharing doesn’t mean what she says it does

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s message at an event on Thursday was clear: education leaders have been throwing good money after bad policy.

To make the point, she shared a graph that appears to show that school spending has risen dramatically over the last three decades as student outcomes barely budged.

“Scores [are] continuing to muddle along, unremarkable,” she told one of her predecessors, Bill Bennett, at a Reagan Institute event. “And yet look at the spending. This is not something we’re going to spend our way out of.”

This visualization, which DeVos also shared on Twitter, has become a staple in some education policy circles. Even Bill Gates has offered a version of it. But the graph is misleading, and several recent studies have in fact shown that students gain — in higher test scores, graduation rates, and earnings as adults — when they attend schools that spend more money. And while DeVos highlighted scores in reading, gains in math have been fairly substantial over part of that period.

A spokesperson for DeVos did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment.

Here’s why it doesn’t really mean what DeVos says it does.

The biggest problem with the graphic is that it conflates correlation and causation.

Simply pointing to two trends that coincide doesn’t say anything about how one affects the other. It’s possible that if education spending hadn’t increased, test scores would have actually declined. Maybe the extra money actually stopped a dramatic deterioration in school quality, for example. There’s just no way to know based on this data.

Here’s another example: Over the past couple decades, charter schools and vouchers have expanded dramatically. By DeVos’s own logic, those would be failed reforms because they didn’t coincide with a sufficient increase in NAEP scores. But that would also be an unfair conclusion, since we don’t know what would have happened without the increase in choice programs.

The two trends are also put side-by-side in an arbitrary way.

This graph has two y axes: one based on school spending, and the other based on scale scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But these two variables are very different. Should an extra $1,000 correspond with 1 point on NAEP scores? Five points?

The decision is subjective, but it determines how large the spending changes look and how small the NAEP changes look, too.

Spending is up in education, but it’s up elsewhere too.

It’s true that in inflation-adjusted dollars, school spending has risen. The economy has also grown over that same time. That matters, because if spending were to hold steady in education while increasing in other areas of the economy, it might become increasingly hard to recruit and retain teachers of equal quality.

Indeed, while education spending has risen, teacher pay compared to similar professionals has fallen. (At the same time, the number of teachers and the number of non-teaching staff in schools has increased significantly, which some have argued illustrate bad spending priorities.)

The story would also look different for math scores.

NAEP scores have been relatively flat for the past decade, but in math they increased substantially the decade beforehand. In fact, a graph could be made showing a tight correspondence between math results and spending.

That’s exactly what Northwestern University economist Kirabo Jackson did. His approach was similar to DeVos’s, with a few changes. He compared NAEP scores in math to the cumulative spending on the average student in the years leading up to the test — the idea being that scores reflect not just the last year of schooling, but several years before that.

Source: Education Next

His graphs look quite different than DeVos’s, simply by tightening the range of scores, looking at math rather than reading, and tweaking the spending measure. (Jackson said that a similar pattern exists for reading, but that it’s less pronounced.)

Recent research has generally shown that school spending really does matter.

To be clear, Jackson’s graphs are also correlational, and like DeVos’s cannot prove cause and effect.

That’s why he and others have conducted sophisticated statistical analyses to isolate the impact of resources on schools. In one recent study, Jackson and colleagues compared states that made more spending cuts in the wake of Great Recession, and found that they did worse on NAEP as a result. In other words, there is a decent case that the recent stagnation in NAEP scores is due at least in part to spending cuts.

That jibes with a larger body of research. Other recent national studies have linked more spending to better NAEP scores, higher graduation rates, better economic outcomes, and greater social mobility. Studies in specific states including California, MassachusettsOhio, and New York have also found test score gains from spending increases.

Of course, none of that proves that the additional money spent over the past few decades have been well used. It doesn’t even prove that those extra dollars have been helpful — the above studies are of specific places or time periods, and their individual approaches could be disputed, too.

There is one recent study, which DeVos often cites, showing that a federal turnaround program that involved a substantial infusion of money for struggling schools didn’t make a noticeable difference.

Still, the graph that Devos offers is not, on its own, a strong case that resources for schools don’t make a difference. Available evidence suggests the opposite.

“If reduced spending contributed to the problem, it seems reasonable to conclude that increased spending may alleviate it,” said Jackson, the Northwestern researcher. “This is not to say that increased spending is some silver bullet, but rather that it should probably be part of a comprehensive set of policies to improve U.S schools.”

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.