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Money can improve performance

By By Paul Keane
Publisher
(Editor's Note: This is the second in a six-part series looking at the funding crisis facing Escambia County public schools. Today's installment looks at how funding relates to performance in public schools in the State of Alabama.)
People say the best things in life are free. When it comes to formal education, though, officials across the state say money makes the difference in providing the best for children.
And, for the most part, test scores and other performance measures seem to bear that sentiment out.
"Local funding is the deciding factor between having the bare minimum and having what is needed for students to succeed," said Dr. Joe Morton, deputy superintendent of education with the State Department of Education. "The state doesn't give enough funds to provide a solid education for students. That is why local funds are so crucial to helping children succeed."
Morton and his staff recently conducted a survey that says, on average, the top 10 school districts in the state provide $3,355 per student in local funding. The bottom 10 average provides $453 per student in local funds.
He further added that – in many cases – performance in standardized testing used statewide reflected the same results – with schools with the least local funding having the lowest scores and schools with the most local funding having the higher scores.
The reason for the correlation is simple, he said.
"When you are providing more local funds, those districts are able to attract the brightest teachers because they can pay them more," Morton said. "You also tend to have smaller class sizes because those districts are in a better position to hire more teachers.
"But those districts also have the money to provide better and more tools, equipment and facilities for teaching purposes. And, when a student is in need of something special, those districts are able to provide tutoring programs and other means to help give the student what is needed.
"The school districts with more local funding just have a better array of tools to address the individual needs of each student."
According to the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT) results from the spring of 2002 – the last time the tests were administered – Morton does have a point.
Of the top 10 schools on the results list – ranked by score – Mountain Brook City School district has five schools listed among the elite. That school district provides $4,160.63 per pupil each year in local funding.
Also in the top 10 is Huntsville City District's Mountain Gap Middle School and Vestavia Hills City District's Liberty Park Elementary and Louis Pizitz Middle School. The Huntsville City School District provides $2,322.74 in local funding per pupil while Vestavia Hills provides $3,225.33 per pupil from local monies.
In comparison, Escambia County School District provides $951.13 per pupil in local funding while Brewton City School District provides $1,499.75.
All of the schools listed in the top 10 for SAT results recorded scores of 85 or higher. The highest school listed in Escambia County was Huxford Elementary with a score of 66, followed by McCall Junior High School with a 62.
During discussions of the funding crisis faced by Escambia County schools, Superintendent Melvin "Buck" Powell has indicated that the state may close some schools in the district, with Huxford and McCall being the ones most frequently mentioned for possible closure.
At the bottom 10 of the SAT list are eight schools that provide less than $1,000 a year per pupil in local funding. Only Courtland High School in the Lawrence County system ($1,033.40) and Lincoln Middle School in the Birmingham City system ($1,610.73) provide funding that reaches four digits. Most of the schools at the bottom of the list provide less than $950 per pupil in local funding, and all 10 of the test scores were 28 or less.
The same trend holds true when looking at the Alabama Direct Assessment of Writing for Grade 7, also taken in the spring of last year. Seven of the top 10 schools all spend $2,100 or more per pupil while the bottom 10 features only two schools that spend even half that amount.
In schools in neighboring counties and areas, the numbers are similar when looking at SAT performance:
The Mountain Brook City School District, considered to be one of the premier districts in the state, provides one of the highest levels of local funding in the state. The results speak for themselves.
All but five of the 264 graduates from the Class of 2002 went on to attend college, with two opting for military service and three undecided on future plans at the time of graduation. There were 22 National Merit Scholar finalists among the graduating class, and the composite ACT score was 25.19 while the composite SAT score was 1,208, both well above the national average.
In addition, schools in the district have been recognized with Awards of Excellence by the National School Public Relations Association and with Blue Ribbon School Awards from the U.S. Department of Education Recognition Program.
Money not the only factor
Simply putting money into a system won't solve all the problems. Many school districts provide solid funding and still don't get the desired results while other districts provide minimum funding and get good results.
Huntsville City Schools provides $2,322.74 per pupil locally, but Roy Stone Middle School and University Place Elementary rank No. 910 and No. 911, respectively, with SAT scores of 34.
On the other end of the spectrum are two schools in the Montgomery County School District, both of which made the top 10 in SAT scores this past year. Forest Avenue Elementary School ranked No. 1 with a score of 90 while Baldwin Art and Academics Magnet School ranked No. 8 with a score of 85.
Both schools are provided $935.37 a year per pupil in local funding, but officials say the make-up of those schools combined with parental involvement have caused the success.
"Those two schools are a little different," said Angela Mann, public information director for the district. "Both are magnet schools geared toward academics. To even be accepted to either of those schools, you have to be working one level ahead of where you should be academically, and you have to maintain certain levels to remain at the school."
Montgomery County has a total of 10 magnet schools, with three of those dedicated to academics. Students can enter a magnet school at the elementary level and continue in an academic magnet program through high school graduation.
"Not only do those schools stress academics, but we also have a great deal of parental involvement," Mann said. "The parents, grandparents and the guardians of these children are really dedicated to making sure their children have a solid education.
"These parents and guardians are very involved in our school, volunteering, helping out and doing whatever is necessary to help enhance the education of their children. I think that makes a huge difference in the success of these schools."
Even with the success, though, Mann admits her district is feeling the crunch of dwindling state and local funds.
"At one time, we had a reserve of $9 million, and we expect to deplete that this year," she said. "The county levied a temporary one-cent sales tax that ran from July 1, 2001 until April 30, 2002, and that helped bring in about $19 million for the school district. But, with the cuts in state funding, that has been used up as well.
"With the economy down right now, we are expecting a $1.5 million shortfall next year. When you add in the sales tax declines and what the state if expecting to cut from our funding, we are looking at a $12.5 to $18.5 million shortfall. That means we're going to have to do some cutting, just like everyone else."
(Next: Property taxes for education. What it would mean to homeowners and educators, and what would the process involve.)