ALEC Delivers Timely Report Card on American Education

Published March 1, 1999

Just one week after the President’s State of the Union message reiterated that education is the primary concern of voters across the country, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) released a new study of U.S. education, packed with all the charts, data, comparisons, and analyses needed to make every elected official, from Congress to the local school board, into an instant expert on education issues. ALEC is the nation’s largest bipartisan membership association of state legislators.

The new study, the fifth edition of ALEC’s Report Card on American Education: A State-by-State Analysis, offers 29 charts and 42 tables of state-level data covering the period 1976-1998, and grades each state using more than 100 measures of education resources and achievement. The dual presentation of data–by individual state and comparisons across states–allows policymakers to examine what works over time, from state to state, and within a single state. As well as a new feature on charter schools, the report contains a greatly expanded chapter on the correlation between education inputs and outputs.

“This is not a policy prescription, but a valuable diagnostic tool that allows state lawmakers, governors, and policymakers to compare and contrast the cost and academic performance of schools across state lines and over time,” said ALEC Executive Director Duane Parde in releasing the 106-page study, which he noted was the largest and most comprehensive in ALEC’s history.

The findings of the 1998 Report Card show no statistical correlation between measures of educational achievement–such as standardized test scores–and conventional measures of investment in America’s schools–such as teacher-student ratios, spending on school infrastructure, per-pupil spending, and teacher salaries. With charter schools, too, improvements in student achievement do not appear to be a function of those investment factors. However, charter school improvements do appear to be related to institutional factors such as parental involvement, decentralization, and strong family structures.

“Measuring such institutional standards is difficult, but lawmakers intent on improving the education of America’s young people need to look beyond the conventional educational markers,” concludes John Barry, president of America’s Future Foundation, who prepared the report with data analysis specialist Rea S. Hederman Jr. “While factors such as dollars per pupil spent, pupil-per-teacher ratios, and teacher salaries are easy to measure, they do not by themselves produce educational achievement.”

Other key findings of the 1998 Report Card:

  • While educational performance was not correlated with either spending per student or teacher salaries, a weak correlation was observed between education performance and fewer students per school, a lower percentage of the school’s budget received from the federal government, and higher student-teacher ratios.
  • The top-performing elementary and secondary schools in the nation–as measured by several standardized tests–were in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Montana, Nebraska, and New Hampshire.
  • The worst-performing schools were found in Louisiana, the District of Columbia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia.
  • The 216 largest school districts in the U.S. represent only 1.5 percent of school districts but enroll 30.5 percent of all students. School districts with fewer than 300 students represent 21 percent of all school districts but enroll only 1 percent of the nation’s students.

“Improvements in America’s public education system will not come about as a result of the tried and tired solutions offered by the education lobby,” noted Barry. “Instead,” he added, “improvements will only be realized through the strength of civil institutions, such as parental involvement, the decentralization of district-controlled public schools, and strong family structures.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.