On education, a tale of two states

Originally published in the Washington Examiner

Suppose you’re a parent of modest means and determined to get the best possible public education for your kids. Suppose further you have two choices about where to live, let’s call them Upstate and Downstate. You conscientiously check the census data on school spending, and the choice looks like a no-brainer.

Upstaters appear committed to quality; they seem happy to fund their public schools generously. Total spending there is almost $15,000 per pupil per year, 22% above the national average. You note with satisfaction that teacher salaries plus benefits per pupil are 28% above the national average, presumably attracting the best teaching talent. Upstate’s biggest city, in fact, ranks third in the nation among large school districts, spending 33% more per pupil than the national average.

Downstaters, by contrast, seem to be shortchanging their kids. Total spending there is well under $10,000 per pupil, 26% below the national average. And Downstate teachers’ compensation package, per pupil, is 37% below the national average. OMG — those poor Downstate teachers, children, and parents!

Before you sign on the Upstate line, however, you decide to check the data on school performance, and you are, well, a little surprised. On the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress test, Downstate kids outperformed Upstaters on both fourth grade math (by five points) and fourth grade reading (three points). Upstate performed better at the eighth grade level, but not by much. The Upstaters outscored Downstaters on math (by two points) and reading (five points).

So, it’s close. But given the aforementioned gross disparities in spending, plus the normal assumption that “you get what you pay for," it shouldn’t have been close.

All right, though, what if the NAEP results are misleading? Maybe Downstate kids just started from a more “privileged” position and their surprisingly good test scores just reflect that.

Fortunately, education researchers adjust the NAEP scores accordingly, controlling for demographic influences. One such study, after making that adjustment, then ranks Downstate NAEP scores third highest in the nation, and Upstaters score seventh highest. Further adjusting for spending patterns to gauge the efficiency of their education systems, Downstate ranks first in the nation and Upstate ranks 13th.

So Down is up, and Up is down. Weird, huh?

Here’s the big (and obvious) reveal: Upstate is Maryland and Downstate is Florida. Evidently, Maryland parents and their kids are getting less than they’re paying for from their public schools, or Floridians are getting more than they’re paying for, or a little of both. The key question is: How is this happening? That might make a book-length treatise someday. Every state is made up of diverse districts, all with innumerable stories about good and bad things happening.

But the main contrast is that Florida is committed to increasing competition in education, whereas Maryland consistently reinforces its public school monopoly by feeding it more money and power, most recently with its misguided Kirwan “reform” plan.

Florida ranks second in the nation in “educational choice share,” the proportion of its students benefiting from charter schools, voucher programs, and the like; Maryland ranks 18th. Research by the Urban Institute, not funded by teachers’ unions or other interest groups carrying their water, shows that the mostly-minority students in Florida’s tax credit scholarship program are more likely to go to and graduate from college than their public school peers. Florida leads the nation in availability of vouchers, which get a 92% satisfaction rating from parents who use them. Maryland has no vouchers. Charter schools in Florida have four times the market share of those in Maryland.

The fact that Florida gets far more bang for its education buck than we do here in Maryland should not be surprising. In every industry, everywhere, we see that competition is good and monopoly is bad. In education, too, everyone steps up their game when they have to compete to stay in business. It’s time Marylanders told their legislators to heed that lesson.

Stephen J.K. Walters is the author of Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream and is the chief economist at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.