Education: Does Spending Equal Outcomes?

Education: Does Spending Equal Outcomes?

When it comes to education, more spending does not always equal better results, says Robert Hanna, a senior policy analyst with the Center for American Progress, in a new paper. In fact, many "twin districts" -- districts that are similar in size, the proportion of students who are from low-income families, and the proportion of students who have limited English proficiency -- see similar achievement results despite different levels of spending and revenues.

Are there ways for districts to achieve a bigger bang for their educational buck? We recently took a few minutes to speak with Hanna about his analysis. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

It's difficult to compare schools with each other because there's so much that they don't control -- some schools have more poor students than others, and so on. Can you tell us about how your "twin districts" approach cuts through this?

We have data -- it is public data from the Department of Education -- that is a survey of district finance. So we know about district spending on instruction, or on operations, or on administration more broadly, and there are more specific breakdowns of those items. Some states have districts that break up in different ways, but generally speaking, 7,000 or more of these districts existed for the time period in our data set from 2009 to 2010.

What we wanted to do for this particular report was to try to compare districts that look very similar. Twin districts are in the same state, have the same size, and serve similar student populations in terms of students designated as English language learners, the number of students who would be eligible to receive free or reduced price lunches, etc. We were able to identify around 400 pairs of districts, so over 800 districts total. We really wanted to address in this paper what we can say about how these twin districts differ.

What were your main findings?

We were generally doing comparisons between higher-spending and lower-spending districts. What we see is that when you compare high- and low-spending districts, they don't really differ in their achievement results for math and reading/language arts.

So you have districts that serve similar student populations, and they spend different amounts of money and collect different levels of revenues, and yet they get the same achievement results, on average, in terms of our whole research sample. From this, you can infer that productivity differs between the districts broadly in these two kind of sample sets of the higher- vs. lower-spending districts.

On average, the higher-spending districts spent around $1,600 more per student, and they still got the same results. Same thing with the revenue: Districts within the same state are collecting different levels of local revenues -- most of which is derived from property taxes -- and generally speaking, we found that the state and the federal government don't fill this gap. Still, the twin districts were essentially achieving the same results on average.

The other thing we did in terms of rounding out the findings -- we wanted to dig slightly deeper -- we ended up calling a whole bunch of districts. We contacted over 100, but we ended up getting about 20 superintendents who were interested or willing to speak with us briefly on the phone. On this I got help from my coauthor, Bo Morris, so I acknowledge him here. One of us interviewed each of these superintendents.

We discussed productivity broadly, but it really kept coming back to the fact that, especially during the particular year 2009-2010, they had very little authority or flexibility to spend the resources they had. They were saying they agree that productivity matters, but they don't have that much flexibility, particularly at a time that was at the height of the recession when resources were much more limited. As we think of our productivity, we also want to think about the fact that district leaders believe they had very limited control at this time.

What does the report recommend to state education policymakers to increase productivity in schools?

One of our recommendations was to make sure that, on the one hand, state policymakers help districts understand the flexibilities that already exist in the streams of money that they get. On the other hand, we also want to make sure that policymakers grant additional flexibility so that districts can be more productive with the resources they have and get better outcomes.

We should also make sure districts are funded equitably, which speaks to our finding about the state revenue differences, because the state and federal government combined don't fill the funding gaps that arise because of local disparities. We point to California and their local-control funding formula, and we recommend that states follow this method of funding to ensure that the students with the most needs get the commensurate level of resources in order to be able to perform at a higher level.

Michael Cipriano is a RealClearPolitics editorial intern.

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