Just the Facts on Education Spending and Achievement

Marc Kilmer Mar 16, 2011

Unions descended on Annapolis earlier this week to protest a proposed freeze in education funding as well as modest changes to the state’s pension system. What if the whole premise underlying this debate is false, though? What if there is no clear connection between how much the government spends on schools and the achievement of students in those schools? And what if Maryland kids really aren’t all that well educated?

The core belief among many in Annapolis is summed up well by the statement by the president of the state’s teachers’ union: “Maryland schools rank No. 1 in the country for the third year and the governor -- that has been part of his conversation to the public -- how proud he is of that accomplishment. So what we’re asking now is, don’t go backward.”

Would it really be going backwards if the state froze education funding? Would our state’s high education ranking be jeopardized? Not necessarily.

As Dan Lips pointed out in a 2004 MPPI report:

Over the past three decades, the United States has drastically increased per-pupil education funding. According to the federal Department of Education, inflation-adjusted education spending per pupil grew by 92 percent between 1972 and 2002, now totaling more than $9,300 per child. Yet it is difficult to correlate that spending increase with improved education outcomes. Year-by-year aggregate results from the National Assessment of Educational

Progress (NAEP)—a national exam taken by a random sample of American students—show no evidence of academic improvement since 1970.

Similarly, nationwide graduation rates have slipped slightly from 75.6 percent to 72.5 percent over the same time period, despite the increased funding. Differences in spending levels across the 50 states also suggest little correlation between increased spending and higher student achievement. The American Legislative Exchange Council’s Report Card of American Education 1976–2001 analyzed student performance in each of the states. The report, which controlled for important background differences, found no evidence that higher spending leads to higher achievement. ALEC considered more than 100 measures of education resources and achievement, and concluded that “simply increasing spending on education is not enough to improve student performance.”

Lips concludes his report by saying that since there is no evidence that higher education spending will improve achievement, the state should focus its efforts in other areas, such as providing more variety in how children receive their education.

Now, what about that #1 ranking? As MPPI senior fellow Marta Mossburg points out, the other premises of this argument may also be flawed. As she notes, the idea that the state is doing a good job educating kids just isn’t true, either:

Most students who graduate from high school in Maryland are not prepared for college, much less the working world.

According to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, of those students who went immediately from high school to college, 56 percent needed some type of remediation and 53 percent needed remediation in math in 2010. A decade ago, 47 percent needed some type of remediation, 39 percent in math. The cost: $90 million annually.

…why are we spending $15,100 each year per public school student in this state so that taxpayers can then spend $90 million more each year to re-educate the few who make it to college?

It looks like the education funding debate in Annapolis suffers from too few facts and too much rhetoric. Not that this should surprise anyone.