Florida Education Needs Structural Change, Not More Money: Study

Published December 1, 1997

Although teacher unions and administrators are promoting a voter initiative to increase public education’s share of Florida’s state budget, a new study shows that the Sunshine State already spends more on education than it spends on any other program and that, without structural change, additional spending is unlikely to improve the quality of education. Among the structural changes recommended by the report, issued by the Tallahassee-based James Madison Institute, are educational choice, decentralization, and alternative teacher certification.

Florida, which already spends more than one-third of its state budget on education, funds education relatively well. When adjusted for cost-of-living differences, Florida’s 1993-94 per-pupil spending was higher than the national average and second only to Virginia in a ranking among ten neighboring Southeastern states. In 1995, Florida teachers earned slightly more or substantially more than did teachers in six out of those ten states.

Despite its relatively high inputs into education, the state’s educational outcomes rank below regional norms. Florida’s high school graduation rate, 67.8 percent, is lower than the national average and lower than all but four of ten Southeastern states. Also, a comparison of Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of high school graduates in states that administer the SAT show that average student achievement in approximately 70 percent of the SAT states exceeds that of Florida graduates.

The report, “Comparing Spending and Performance in Florida’s Public Schools and Colleges,” was written by James D. Gwartney and Lora Holcombe, both of Florida State University; J. Stanley Marshall of the James Madison Institute; and Russell S. Sobel of the University of West Virginia.

“This ranking is certainly not surprising,” note the report’s authors, “since Florida’s high school dropout rate is well above the national average.”

In sharp contrast to the performance of its K-12 schools, Florida’s post-secondary public education institutions show better-than-average performance and lower expenditures. In 1992, for example, Florida spent only 71.6 percent of the national average, or $6,219 per college student, at least in part because a larger-than-average proportion of Florida’s students attend community colleges. And while Florida grants fewer degrees per 1,000 population than most other states, this is largely a result of demographics: 18- to 34-year-olds comprise a smaller proportion of the state’s population than is true nationally.

“Comparing spending and performance in Florida’s public schools and colleges leads to a general conclusion,” the study says: “Rather than simply spend more money on education, Florida should experiment with structural changes in its schools and colleges.” Among the changes they recommend are:

  • educational choice, where parents choose the public, private, or religious school their child attends and their tax dollars follow the child to that school;
  • decentralization, where large districts are broken into smaller decision-making units, following the example of District 4 in East Harlem, New York;
  • measurement of school performance by outputs rather than inputs;
  • alternative teacher certification processes to encourage competent retirees and professionals to enter the classroom;
  • encouraging teacher unions to cooperate with reform efforts.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].