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Current public pension funding policy has arguably failed on both theoretical and empirical grounds. The traditional actuarial approach elides the risk-return tradeoff at the heart of finance economics and has resulted in steadily rising contribution rates, instead of a sustainable steady state. We propose an economic reformulation of funding policy integrating: (1) steady-state determination of the expected contribution rate, based on an expected return on risky assets and a target funded ratio based on a low-risk discount rate for liabilities; (2) adjustment parameters to achieve convergence toward steady state; and (3) determination of target funded ratio based on policymakers’ revealed preference toward risk, by their choice of asset allocation under a simplified objective function. This provides a new understanding of the basis for pre-funding, in which the perceived net benefits of risky investment may far outweigh the traditional Samuelsonian rationale. Specifically, we find that convexity of the long-run risk-return relationship should lead more risk-tolerant policymakers to pursue higher target funded ratios. We believe our analysis provides the basis for reformulating contribution policy in a way that better supports sustainability and more coherently conveys the tradeoffs consistent with finance economics, and as evaluated by policymakers.
Despite the growing popularity of free college proposals, countries with higher college subsidies tend to have higher enrollment rates but not higher graduation rates. To capture this evidence and evaluate potential free college policies, we rely on a dynamic model of college enrollment, performance, and graduation estimated using rich student-level data from Colombia. In the model, student effort affects class completion and mitigates the risk of performing poorly or dropping out. Among our simulated policies, universal free college expands enrollment the most but has virtually no effect on graduation rates, helping explain the cross-country evidence. Performance-based free college triggers a more modest enrollment expansion but delivers a higher graduation rate at a lower fiscal cost. While both programs lower student uncertainty relative to the baseline, performance-based free college does it to a lower extent, which in turn promotes better student outcomes. Overall, free college programs expand enrollment but have limited impacts on graduation and attainment due to their limited impact on student effort.
The impact of school resources on student outcomes was first raised in the 1960s and has been controversial since then. This issue enters into the decision making on school finance in both legislatures and the courts. The historical research found little consistent or systematic relationship of spending and achievement, but this research frequently suffers from significant concerns about the underlying estimation strategies. More recent work has re-opened the fundamental resource-achievement relationship with more compelling analyses that offer stronger identification of resource impacts. A thorough review of existing studies, however, leads to similar conclusions as the historical work: how resources are used is key to the outcomes. At the same time, the research has not been successful at identifying mechanisms underlying successful use of resources or for ascertaining when added school investments are likely to be well-used. Direct investigations of alternative input policies (capital spending, reducing class size, or salary incentives for teachers) do not provide clear support for such specific policy initiatives.
A major challenge for states is determining how to support lower levels of government experiencing fiscal or performance challenges without incentivizing future financial mismanagement. Though classical liberal economics tradition argues that decentralization encourages fiscal responsibility, more recent work on fiscal federalism suggests that decentralization could instead encourage fiscal irresponsibility. In this paper, we study one key example of political centralization in the context of public education—state takeovers of local school districts—and its impact on the fiscal condition of the targeted districts. Using event study methods, we find takeovers from 1990 to 2019 increased annual school spending by roughly $2,000 per pupil after five years, leading to improvements in financial condition. Further examination of mechanisms suggests that increased funding was used for employee benefits and debt retirement and came primarily from state sources. The effects on spending were larger when accompanied by accountability mechanisms, and when they occurred in larger districts and districts with higher baseline debt levels. Takeover was less impactful for districts serving higher concentrations of Black students.
Recent public discussions and legal decisions suggest that school segregation will remain persistent in the United States, but increased transparency may help monitor spending across schools. These circumstances revive an old question: is it possible to achieve an educational system that is separate but equal—or better—in terms of spending? This question motivates further understanding the measurement of spending progressivity and its association with segregation. Focusing on economic disadvantage, we compare two commonly-used measures of spending progressivity: exposure-based and slope-based. We show that each measure is predicated on different assumptions about the progressivity of within-school resource allocations, and that they are theoretically linked through segregation. We empirically examine school spending progressivity and its properties using nationwide school spending data from the 2018-19 school year. Consistent with our theory, the exposure-based measure is the slope-based measure shrunk inversely by economic school segregation. This property makes more segregated school districts look more progressive on the exposure-based measure, representing a seemingly “separate but better” relationship. However, we show that this provocative pattern may be reversed by relatively modest poor-versus-nonpoor differences in unobserved parental contributions. We discuss implications for the measurement of progressivity, and for theory on public educational investments broadly.
How far is the world away from ensuring that every child obtains the basic skills needed to be internationally competitive? And what would accomplishing this mean for world development? Based on the micro data of international and regional achievement tests, we map achievement onto a common (PISA) scale. We then estimate the share of children not achieving basic skills for 159 countries that cover 98.1% of world population and 99.4% of world GDP. We find that at least two-thirds of the world’s youth do not reach basic skill levels, ranging from 24% in North America to 89% in South Asia and 94% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Our economic analysis suggests that the present value of lost world economic output due to missing the goal of global universal basic skills amounts to over $700 trillion over the remaining century, or 11% of discounted GDP.
School districts in the United States often borrow on the municipal bond market to pay for capital projects. Districts serving economically disadvantaged communities tend to receive lower credit ratings and pay higher interest rates. To remedy this problem, 24 states have established credit enhancement programs that promise to repay district debt when a district cannot do so, thereby enhancing the district’s credit rating. I rely on cross- and within-district variations to estimate the effect of receiving state credit enhancement on district bond interest rate, per-pupil capital spending, and student performance. State enhancement reduces district bond interest rates by 6% and increases per-student capital spending by 6% to 7%. It also reduces the disparity in interest rate and capital spending across districts serving lower and higher income families, with no discernible effect on test scores. I find no evidence that the amount of enhanced school debt is associated with significant changes in interest rates paid by state governments. Districts in states without such programs could have achieved cost savings in the range of $383 million to $1 billion from 2009 to 2019 had the states adopted similar programs.
Measures of student disadvantage—or risk—are critical components of equity-focused education policies. However, the risk measures used in contemporary policies have significant limitations, and despite continued advances in data infrastructure and analytic capacity, there has been little innovation in these measures for decades. We develop a new measure of student risk for use in education policies, which we call Predicted Academic Performance (PAP). PAP is a flexible, data-rich indicator that identifies students at risk of poor academic outcomes. It blends concepts from emerging “early warning” systems with principles of incentive design to balance the competing priorities of accurate risk measurement and suitability for policy use. PAP is more effective than common alternatives at identifying students who are at risk of poor academic outcomes and can be used to target resources toward these students—and students who belong to several other associated risk categories—more efficiently.
This paper contributes to our understanding of American education politics by exploring when and why states redistribute K-12 education dollars to poorer schools. It does so by examining three explanations for intra-state changes in progressivity: court-ordered finance reforms, political trends, and demographic changes. Using state-level data from 1995-2016, we find mixed evidence that progressivity increased following a court-ordered school finance overhaul. Rather, we show that changes in progressivity were most consistently tied to changes in student demography: as students became poorer, or more racially diverse, lawmakers created less progressive finance systems. The paper concludes by discussing what these findings mean for advocates seeking to protect and advance gains in education spending progressivity.
Levels of governance (the nation, states, and districts), student subgroups (racially and ethnically minoritized and economically disadvantaged students), and types of resources (expenditures, class sizes, and teacher quality) intersect to represent a complex and comprehensive picture of K-12 educational resource inequality. Drawing on multiple sources of the most recently available data, we describe inequality in multiple dimensions. At the national level, racially and ethnically minoritized and economically disadvantaged students receive between $30 and $800 less in K-12 expenditures per pupil than White and economically advantaged students. At the state and district levels, per-pupil expenditures generally favor racially and ethnically minoritized and economically disadvantaged students compared to White and economically advantaged students. Looking at nonpecuniary resources, minoritized and economically disadvantaged students have smaller class sizes than their subgroup counterparts in the average district, but these students also have greater exposure to inexperienced teachers. We see no evidence that district-level spending in favor of traditionally disadvantaged subgroups is explained by district size, average district spending, teacher turnover, or expenditures on auxiliary staff, but Black and Hispanic spending advantage is correlated with the relative size of the Black and Hispanic special education population.