Education Results, Not Spending Rankings, Count Most

Tomorrow marks one of education’s most important  rituals: the annual release of Education Week’sQuality Counts” report, which grades states on several criteria including spending. If history is any indication, howls about “underfunded” public education are sure to follow. In fact, by my tally at least a dozen states all claimed to be 49th in K-12 funding in 2015 alone, about the same number as 2014, depending on the ranking and the methodology used.

The reality is total public elementary and secondary school spending now amounts to $635 billion. If that kind of spending represented market value, public K-12 education would rank second only to Apple valued at $725 billion and far ahead of ExxonMobil and Microsoft, each with a market value of more than $300 billion.

The trouble is, annual spending rankings tell us virtually nothing about how much value students and taxpayers are receiving for what we’re spending.

Right now, for instance, total per-pupil spending averages more than $12,000 nationwide. Yet alarmingly small numbers of students are doing well in reading and math based on combined proficiency rates from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Less than half (46 percent) of fourth and eighth grade public school students nationwide who are not low-income (those whose family incomes are too high to quality for the federal National School Lunch program) are proficient in NAEP reading and math. Barely one in five low-income public school students (21 percent) is proficient.

Yet these averages conceal huge spending and performance variances. In fact, many states are simply paying more for poor results.  This is especially true for low-income students based on combined fourth and eighth grade NAEP math and reading proficiency rates and per-pupil instructional spending, averaging $6,500 nationwide for the 2011-12 school year, the latest spending data available.

At more than twice the national average, New York is the country’s top spender, $13,500 per student, but just 22 percent of low-income students are proficient.  Numerous other states do as well or better spending a whole lot less.

Montana and New Hampshire spend $6,300 and $8,900, and each have a 29 percent proficiency rate—the highest nationally for low-income students, tying with Vermont, Massachusetts, and Wyoming, which spend $10,400, $9,600, and $9,500, respectively. Other states spending below the national average and achieving better results than New York include Idaho ($4,000), which performs as well as top-spender contender New Jersey ($10,800), Indiana ($5,600), Kansas ($6,100), Kentucky ($5,400), Ohio ($6,400), Washington ($5,600), and South Dakota ($5,100).

Another six states spend thousands of dollars less than New York and achieve the same proficiency rate: Colorado ($5,000), Florida ($5,200), North Carolina ($5,100), Pennsylvania ($8,000), Texas ($4,900), and Utah ($4,100).

Yet New York is not an isolated case. Alaska and Connecticut each have an 18 percent proficiency rate in spite of spending $9,700 and $10,700. Nearly a dozen states spend less than the national average and perform as well or better than these states: Arizona ($4,000), Arkansas ($5,400), Georgia ($5,700), Iowa ($6,200), Michigan ($6,100), Missouri ($5,700), Oklahoma ($4,300), Oregon ($5,500), Nevada ($4,800), South Carolina ($5,200), and Virginia (just under $6,500).

A striking difference between top-spending states and the vast majority of lower-spending but better performing states is the availability of parental choice programs.  Scholarships and education savings account (ESA) programs, such as those in Arizona, Florida, and Nevada, empower parents to choose the education providers, including private schools, they think are best for their children. All providers, in turn, must compete for students and their associated funding, which introduces powerful pressure for them to improve their performance.

Instead of fixating on spending rankings, we should be focusing on results—and emulating the states that get the best achievement for every dollar spent.

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For the authoritative examination of the history and impact of the U.S. Department of Education and the need for innovative reforms based on educational choice and opportunity, see the Independent Institute’s widely acclaimed book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children, by Vicki E. Alger.

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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