Wednesday, February 11, 2009

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, 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]

Editor's note: Hello, Georgia. The big news today is that the Georgia Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill that will allow Georgia Power to hike consumers' rates in 2011 -- for nuke plants that won't come on line until years later. Maggie Lee, one of the Georgia Online News Service reporters covering the General Assembly, has the full story today.

Also, one of the perennial hot topics in Georgia is school funding. How much is enough? Is money wasted? Will more school funding result in better educated kids and higher graduation rates. No one is likely to find the answer, but in today's Soapbox, Ben Scafidi, director of the Economics of Education Policy Center at Georgia College & State University, stimulates the debate with research that shows the per-student increases in education spending haven't pushed up the graduation rates.

Finally, in my column, I am fascinated by two legislators who were shocked -- shocked! -- to find out that professors at state universities are experts on subjects such as oral sex and male prostitution. I've been a college professor, and I've long reported on what happens when politicians collide with professors. The result is bad public policy and threats to academic freedom. In the current brouhaha, the legislators apparently thought the professors were teaching "how to" courses. That shows very bad study habits by the politicians. The professors were actually researching some very important subjects on issues such as HIV/AIDS.

As always, we'd like to hear from you. GONSO is an enterprise founded and staffed by more than two dozen leading journalists and media executives in Georgia. We're providing content free -- for a limited period. Newspapers, broadcasters, bloggers and websites are welcome to use our articles -- please credit the writers and the Georgia Online News Service.

Send your comments and any story ideas to executive editor John Sugg at You can also call us at 800-891-3459.

Today's GONSO

Senate OKs Georgia Power Nuke Financing Plan

by Maggie Lee
By a 2-1 margin, the state Senate has passed a controversial bill that would allow Georgia Power to start raising residential customers' power bills in 2011 for two nuclear reactors that won't come online until 2016 or later.
Full Story

What do we call two legislators who have started a witch-hunt in academia? Dumb and Dumber

by John Sugg
Anytime politicians get mixed up in academic affairs, disaster lurks. Such is the case with two Republican state representatives, Charlice Byrd of Woodstock and Calvin Hill of Canton, who have launched a jihad against Georgia universities that would make Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger proud.
Full Story


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.
Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
Governor Perdue: Deliver us from the land of nuclear make believe
by Lyle Harris
Legislature Takes Time Sizing up Federal Funds
by Maggie Lee
Recipe for preventing a disaster
by Susan Puckett

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