IF you look at just the numbers in a new analysis of city schools, the policy implication seems obvious and painful. If we truly care about the next generation, we've got to start spending less money on schools.
The amount of money spent per pupil is inversely related to academic performance, according to an analysis of spending in the city's 32 community school districts by The New York Times. The analysis, published last week, found that the best schools spent the least per pupil and had the most crowded classrooms.
No one, of course, is actually suggesting a causal relationship. No one believes that students in Bushwick score lower than students on the Upper East Side because the per-pupil spending is 9 percent higher in Bushwick ($8,964 versus $8,229).
But the results are nonetheless painful for educators and politicians and journalists. Money has traditionally been everyone's favorite measure of the city's commitment to education: simple, convenient, uncontroversial.
Money makes all the players happy. It buys patronage jobs for school-district officials, raises for teachers, dues for unions, campaign contributions for politicians. Money gives everyone an excuse for failure. The Board of Education can blame City Hall for skimping on the budget, and City Hall can blame Albany for insufficient state aid.
The Times's analysis may defy conventional political wisdom, but it does not surprise Eric Hanushek, an economist at the University of Rochester. In a statewide study, he found no relationship between the amount spent per pupil in a school district and the percentage of students who pass the Regents exams.
In a New York City study, he looked at elementary and middle schools with students from predominantly low-income families. ''There's little relationship between spending and student performance in those high-poverty schools,'' he said, ''If anything, the schools that spend more money have less to show for it.''
Dr. Hanushek is an expert witness for the State of New York in a lawsuit brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a coalition of advocacy groups seeking more school aid for city schools. He doubts that the extra money would make much difference.
''Among school districts nationwide,'' he said, ''New York City is well within the top 10 percent when it comes to spending per pupil. It's hard to imagine that they do not have the resources to provide an adequate education. How they're spending it is more important than how much they get.''
Leanna Stiefel, an economist at the Wagner School at New York University, has been a consultant to the other side in the lawsuit. She believes that more state aid can help city schools, but she agrees that it has to be spent differently.
''Looking at data from school districts across the country,'' she said, ''it's hard to find a positive correlation between per-pupil expenditures and educational results. More money won't do much good if it's just added in the same pattern that exists now. We have to focus on things that work, like higher salaries for teachers, and making schools more accountable.''
WHY is money being wasted today? ''It's not that teachers and administrators are evil,'' Dr. Hanushek said. ''There just aren't any real incentives to spend money well because there aren't rewards for improving student performance. So there's a tendency to spend money on things that make life easier for teachers and administrators.''
Dr. Hanushek has a couple of suggestions for new incentives. ''You can reward good performance with bonuses for teachers and schools that do well,'' he said. ''Or you can do it with vouchers, which allow parents to vote on performance by choosing schools.''
New York parents seem eager to vote, to judge from another set of numbers last week. In a New York Times/CBS News poll of state residents, 52 percent said that parents should be allowed to use tax-financed vouchers to attend private or religious schools. Forty percent disagreed.
Vouchers were favored by 50 percent to 42 percent among whites, 61 to 31 among blacks and 63 to 29 among Hispanics. The breakdown was 51 percent to 40 percent among Democrats and 60 percent to 34 percent among Republicans.
Geographically, the most enthusiastic respondents were New York City residents, who favored vouchers 56 percent to 36 percent. Apparently some of them had already concluded, without doing any formal correlations, that money does not necessarily buy a good education at a public school.