Biden taps education researcher known for work on school funding as economics adviser

A white building with a flag on it in front of a green lawn.
The White House in Washington, D.C. President Joe Biden has appointed Kirabo Jackson, a prominent education researcher, to a position on the Council of Economic Advisers. (Rudy Sulgan / Getty)

President Joe Biden tapped education economist Kirabo Jackson to serve as a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers on Friday.

Jackson is well-known in education research circles for his work finding that more money spent on public schools tends to boost student performance. His appointment suggests that Biden will continue to promote education funding as a strategy for improving education — and perhaps for winning votes in the coming presidential campaign. At minimum, it’s a rare sign of interest in K-12 education from a White House that has not made schools a centerpiece of its agenda.

“It signals that the administration absolutely wants the CEA to have serious expertise in education policy,” said Josh Goodman, a professor at Boston University who previously worked as a senior economist at the CEA.

Jackson, who will take a leave of absence as a professor at Northwestern University, has focused his academic research on a wide range of issues relating to schools. “[He] has made a number of major contributions in the economics of education literature,” said Goodman.

For instance, while many other economists have shown that effective teachers improve test scores, Jackson went one step further. He found that teachers affect a number of other outcomes including attendance, behavior, and grades. Those factors, Jackson concluded, may be even more important than test scores for students’ long-run success. 

Some of his other research has found that parents are good at choosing effective schools. Another recent study of his found positive results from a Chicago program to grant principals more autonomy over their schools.

Jackson’s research has been most influential on the issue of school funding. He coauthored a seminal paper in 2016 concluding that court-ordered school finance reforms boosted children’s economic futures.

He followed that with a recent summary of studies on the relationship between money and school performance, finding a positive link. “I was genuinely curious as to whether [the finding] would hold up if you looked across studies,” Jackson said in an interview earlier this year. “And it turns out, it holds up remarkably well.”

His research has been frequently cited in school funding court cases, and Jackson himself has served as a paid witness in a couple of those cases. 

In one recent case in Pennsylvania, a witness for the defense described Jackson as “the individual who, in my view, kind of most singularly effectuated the consensus shift” about money and school performance. The judge in that case ultimately ruled that Pennsylvania’s funding system was unconstitutional.

Jackson will join the three-member Council of Economic Advisers, which uses empirical evidence to advise the president. “The simplest way to think about it is as an internal research group within the White house,” said Goodman. 

News of Jackson’s appointment was first reported by Reuters. 

Biden’s education policy has already drawn from — or at least been consistent with — Jackson’s academic work. The White House championed a massive infusion of relief funds for schools that passed under the American Rescue Plan. 

The president has also pushed to more than double funding for Title I, which sends money to school districts based on the number of students in poverty they serve. This proposal has gone nowhere in Congress. And a recent debt deal with House Republicans means that any funding increase for education will be anemic at best for the rest of Biden’s term.

Outside of funding, Biden has not articulated a clear vision for K-12 schools — despite a series of challenges in the sector, including persistent learning loss. In this year’s State of the Union, Biden only briefly mentioned K-12 education.  

Matt Barnum is interim national editor, overseeing and contributing to Chalkbeat’s coverage of national education issues. Contact him at mbarnum@chalkbeat.org.

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