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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Essays on the Distribution and Effectiveness of Educational Resources

  • Author(s): Lafortune, Julien
  • Advisor(s): Rothstein, Jesse
  • et al.

Public schools are the foundation of the American educational system, and the public K-12 education system is often idealized as being one of, if not the, “great equalizer” in American society. Despite this lofty ideal, educational resources are not equally distributed and there are tremendous discrepancies in student outcomes, both between and within schools. This dissertation examines the implications of such discrepancies in the provision of school resources, both financial and otherwise.

In Chapter 1, I link data on new facility openings to administrative student and real estate records in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to provide new evidence on the importance of school capital expenditures for students and neighborhoods. Since 1997, LAUSD has built and renovated hundreds of schools as a part of the largest public school construction project in US history. Using an event-study design that exploits variation in the timing of new school openings, I find that spending 4 years in a new school increases test scores by 10% of a standard deviation in math, and 5% in English-language arts. This in part reflects non-cognitive improvements: Treated students attend four additional days per school year and teachers report greater effort. Effects do not appear to be driven by changes in class size, teacher composition, or peer composition, but reduced overcrowding plays a role. House prices increase by 6% in neighborhoods that receive new schools. Real estate capitalization is greater than program cost, implying a willingness-to-pay in the range of 1.2 to 1.6 per dollar spent.

In Chapter 2, I study the impact of post-1990 school finance reforms, during the so-called “adequacy” era, on absolute and relative spending and achievement in low-income school districts. Using an event study research design that exploits the apparent randomness of reform timing, I show that reforms lead to sharp, immediate, and sustained increases in spending in low-income school districts. Using representative samples from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, I find that reforms cause increases in the achievement of students in these districts, phasing in gradually over the years following the reform. The implied effect of school resources on educational achievement is large.

In Chapter 3, I consider educational discrepancies of a different sort: tracking and the segmentation of students into different curricular paths. In most U.S. schools, a significant track diversion occurs in 8th grade: higher-achieving students are tracked into Algebra, while lower-achieving students take Algebra in 9th grade or later. Using a fuzzy regression discontinuity design around prior-year test score proficiency thresholds, I examine the impact of tracking into Algebra in 8th grade rather than in high school. For students near the 80th percentile in the 7th grade state math distribution, advanced track enrollment leads to large increases in mathematics course-taking, AP course participation, and college entrance exam scores. However, for students near the 30th percentile in the 7th grade math distribution, advanced track enrollment is associated with large decreases in Algebra performance, with little indication of any longer-term gains. Results show that advanced math tracking in secondary schools has heterogeneous impacts on students based on prior math achievement. Expanding access to advanced math courses among high-achieving but not low-achieving students could yield large improvements in mathematics skills and college preparedness.

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