Per-student school funding soars as graduation rates fall|
by Ben Scafidi
A new, 25-year analysis of education spending in Georgia shows something that many have suspected for a long time. Investing more taxpayer funds in education does not produce greater student achievement.
As shown in my recent report available at www.educatedgeorgia.org, per student spending over the last generation (adjusted for inflation) more than doubled in Georgia, while at the same time public high school graduation rates fell. This dramatic increase in operational spending led to large decreases in class sizes, huge improvements in instructional technology, and very large increases in administration. But it absolutely did not increase graduation rates over where we were when Jimmy Carter was President and Urban Cowboy was all the rage.
No matter how painful, the data from federal and state government sources cannot be disputed. Without agreeing to these basic facts, we cannot have a productive discussion about how to improve student achievement.
In 1990 Georgia students were 41st in the nation in graduation rates. Billions of dollars later, we are 49th. Although every measure says that Georgia's graduation rate has increased since 2001 during Georgia's so-called budget crisis, when advocates for more spending claimed that the state underfunded education, our graduation rate still remains below where it was a generation ago.
Given these basic facts, it is very hard to believe that even more money would improve student achievement. Remarkably, some believe there is no end to the amount of funding we need in public education – despite the lack of productive outcomes.
By contrast, 21 states spend less than Georgia and have higher graduation rates including the following three that are highly diverse like Georgia.
- Arizona spends $2,500 less per student, yet has a graduation rate that is 23 percentage points higher than Georgia's.
- California spends $2,000 less per student, yet has a graduation rate that is 13 percentage points higher than Georgia's.
- Texas spends almost $1,000 less per student, yet has a graduation rate that is 12 percentage points higher than Georgia's.
- Even the consortium of mostly rural school districts that sued the state for more money says that they cannot find a relationship between spending and student achievement within Georgia.
We have been looking in the wrong places to improve student achievement. We tried massive increases in education spending, but that has not worked. Student achievement dropped, no matter how you measure graduation rates. More money is not the answer.
So what can we do to improve student achievement in Georgia?
We must increase the productivity of the dollars we are currently spending.
First, school systems should consider following Gwinnett County and sign flexibility contracts with the state or becoming charter systems like Decatur and Marietta to allow them to operate without many state rules and regulations.
Second, groups of parents should start charter schools. School boards should also make changes to provide competition and choice within the public education sector.
Third, the state should allow parents to take the tax money that pays their child's education to the school of their choice—even if it is a private school.
Competition and choice are the ultimate in accountability and will lead schools to maximize the quality of the education they offer. Children are different and require different learning environments. School choice will increase productivity and student achievement.
Our top priority should be the best possible outcomes for our kids. Now we know the facts. It's time to make some changes.
Benjamin Scafidi is an associate professor and director of the Economics of Education Policy Center at Georgia College & State University. He is also the director of the Center for an Educated Georgia. [full bio]