Spending Increases Don’t Improve Student Achievement: Report

Published May 1, 2006

On February 23, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) released the 12th edition of its annual Report Card on American Education: A State-by-State Analysis, by Andrew T. LeFevre (who also contributes to School Reform News). The handbook assesses the academic achievement rates and public education investments of the 2003-04 school year and measures changes in these indicators over the past two decades.

Minnesota topped ALEC’s academic achievement rankings, while the District of Columbia ranked 51st. To calculate the rankings, LeFevre included indicators from the 2003 assessments of the SAT, ACT, and fourth- and eighth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in both reading and math.

The current Report Card varies from previous publications because, for the first time, the author compared educational inputs, such as education spending, teacher salaries, and pupil-teacher ratios, with educational outputs, such as standardized test scores and student achievement rankings, from the same year. The 2003-04 edition assesses both educational inputs and outputs from 2003, whereas the previous edition evaluated 2002 inputs and 2003 outputs.

Dollars Don’t Yield Success

As has been the case with previous editions, this version of the Report Card found no evident correlation between improved student achievement and increasing education spending or lowering student-teacher ratios. While education expenditures ballooned by 78 percent after inflation adjustments over 20 years, 73 percent of public school eighth-graders performed below proficiency in math, and 70 percent scored below proficiency in reading, according to the NAEP exam.

“Education policy debates in state capitals around the nation must concentrate on student learning above all else, and state legislators have the power to promote real reform,” said Georgia state Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs), ALEC 2005 national chairman. “Parents are demanding solutions to these challenges and are looking to legislators to make changes to our public school system.”

Only two of the 10 states that increased their per-pupil expenditures the most over the past two decades ranked in the top 10 in academic achievement: New Hampshire increased its per-pupil expenditure by 106.1 percent over the past 20 years and ranked third in academic achievement, while Vermont raised student spending by 100.2 percent and ranked fifth in student assessments.

By contrast, Georgia increased per-pupil expenditures by 139.7 percent–the largest percentage increase of any state over two decades–but ranks 45th in academic achievement. South Carolina increased expenditures by 137.1 percent and ranked 43rd, and the District of Columbia increased student spending by 105.4 percent and ranked 51st.

Reform Essential

Similarly, of the 10 states that experienced the greatest decreases in pupil-teacher ratios over the past two decades, only Vermont–which saw a decrease of 17.6 percent–ranked in the top 10 for student achievement. Tennessee (ranked 40th in overall student achievement) cut its pupil-teacher ratio by 22.6 percent; Hawaii (46th) cut it by 26 percent; Alabama (47th) by 22.7 percent; Louisiana (48th) by 21.5 percent; and New Mexico (49th) by 20.1 percent.

“If pumping more money into schools, providing higher teacher salaries, reducing pupil-per-teacher ratios, building more schools, and spending more federal dollars to bail out public schools have not led to student achievement in the past, how can they be expected to do so in the future?” LeFevre wrote. “Dogged perpetuation of failed policies wastes public dollars; worse, it delays further the implementation of valuable new approaches.”

Within its more than 50 tables and figures, which display in various ways more than 100 measures of educational resources and achievement, the report also includes analyses of numerous factors affecting the public education system, including demographics, school choice, and charter school initiatives.

“ALEC has conducted this study for 12 years now, and for 12 years we’ve witnessed no categorical increase in student achievement,” LeFevre said in an interview for this article. “It is high time that education policies focus on student achievement and not on a dollar sign.”

Data Should Inform Policies

The data found in the Report Card are meant to provide in a single volume the most basic and customary measures of educational resources and achievement on a state-by-state basis. ALEC notes the publication is neither a policy manual nor an ideological document. Lawmakers and policy experts should use the compilation of educational data and historical perspectives on instructional spending and academic achievement rates as a point of reference for future policies.

“ALEC members agree that Americans demand a first-rate public school system, and we are dedicated to making high student achievement a reality,” Ehrhart said. “We must challenge ourselves to question the established thinking about public education and focus our policies on those [approaches] that deliver results.”

Lori Drummer ([email protected]) is education task force director at the American Legislative Exchange Council.

For more information …

An electronic copy of the Report Card on American Education: A State-by-State Analysis is available online at http://www.alec.org.