A new report on efficiency in public-school spending further dispels the myth that poverty prevents students from preparing for college and careers and indicates taxpayers often don’t get much bang for their education tax bucks.
“Bang for the Buck 2012: How efficient are Kentucky’s schools?” reveals that real spending on education has nearly doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars since Kentucky implemented its much-ballyhooed education reform act in 1990, but many school districts spending the most have made little academic improvement.
“Education efficiency is not just a challenge for Kentucky,” said report author Richard Innes, a Bluegrass Institute education analyst. “As the entire economy gets more restrained, throwing huge amounts of dollars at public education just isn’t going to be feasible. Efficiency should be on the minds of everybody associated with public education.”
Innes generated a Score-Spending Index (SSI) where the average school system performing at state average for efficiency gets an SSI of zero. Districts with above-average efficiency get positive scores while those below the state average get negative scores.
Winners and Losers
Owsley County School District had the worst SSI in Kentucky at -40.57. Owsley spent a whopping $16,000 per pupil—$6,000 more than the state average – yet students only netted, on average, a 16.8 ACT Composite Score, two full points below the state average.
At the other end of the scale, Beechwood Independent Schools reaped the report’s highest SSI of 52.99, indicating that the district is nearly 53 percent more efficient than the average school system. It spends $7,000 less per pupil than Owsley and $1,166 less than the state average.
Owsley County sits in the eastern Kentucky mountains. Eighty-eight percent of its students participate in free and reduced lunch programs. Beechwood sits in an affluent area outside Cincinnati, and only 12 percent of its students come from lower-income homes.
Research has shown that providing a quality education “is not just throwing more tax dollars, but in making better uses of available resources,” Innes said.
Barbourville Independent District, also in eastern Kentucky, garnered the report’s fourth-highest SSI. It spends only $8,238 per pupil, though 60 percent of its students come from low-income households, which is 4 percent above the state average.
“Student poverty clearly does not stand in the way of attaining efficiency in Barbourville,” Innes said.
To highlight some innovative practices that help districts provide an efficient and effective education to low-income students, the institute recognized four “Diamond in the Rough” districts—Graves, LaRue and Mason counties, and Eminence Independent—at a news conference.
While these districts have neither the highest ACT scores nor the lowest per-pupil spending, “they are doing notably better than average at getting kids ready for college and careers at an efficient cost,” Innes said.
The institute’s interviews with these districts’ superintendents revealed some common priorities that greatly assist in efficiently educating students: relationships, technology, and retention.
“You must lead with the relationships,” said Mason County superintendent Tim Moore. “You must tell the students why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
Teachers in Moore’s district visit every child’s home to build rapport.
Grave County has a Bring Your Own Device policy to encourage students to use technology at school. Mason County has an initiative to give all students iPads. Eminence Independent district has a bus equipped with Wi-Fi dual that credit-students use during their 45-minute commute to Bellarmine University in nearby Louisville.
“Technology [alone] is not the answer, but it sure is a great motivator for kids to take ownership of their learning,” Moore said.
Nearly a quarter of Kentucky’s students fail to graduate. “Diamond in the Rough” districts have better-than-state-average graduation rates and emphasize retaining students likely to drop out.
Graves County has started a program to bring back dropouts. So far, it has shepherded 500 such students through graduation.
The Kentucky Department of Education plans to launch a website “that will allow us to capture best practices across the state in areas of efficiency and have a place where districts can share what those practices are,” said Kay Kennedy, a KDOE district support director.
Image courtesy of the Bluegrass Institute. It depicts Buddy Berry, superintendent of the Eminence Independent School District near Louisville, Kentucky.