Spending money does not always fix the problem

Published 7:40 pm Tuesday, September 16, 2008

By By Gary Palmer
When it comes to improving Alabama school children’s academic performance and reducing the state’s dropout rate, simply spending more money on education may not be enough.
The Alabama Policy Institute (API) recently released a report by Dr. John Hill entitled Alabama’s Public Education Dilemma: Does Funding Influence Outcomes? The report evaluates state education “inputs,” which include the percentage of education personnel who are actually teaching students, the percentage of teachers with degrees in their specialties and the total amount of funding versus “outputs” such as test scores on reading and math, ACT scores and graduation rates.
The new report shows that on most measures, Alabama is at or above the national average on inputs such as curriculum, requirements for graduation, teacher readiness and teacher pay. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the state’s education outputs as indicated by test scores, actual graduation rates and ACT scores, are among the worst in the nation. In addition, 25 to 30 percent of the students who do graduate from Alabama public schools require remedial education, because they lack the basic skills required to succeed in college or to hold a job.
Using a formula to calculate score (outputs) to spending (inputs), Dr. Hill found that the vast majority of schools with the worst scores on standardized tests are spending more money per pupil than the schools with the best scores. In almost every case, the difference in funding was in federal money for students from low-income households.
According to Hill’s research, students who in 2007 were eligible for free/reduced price school lunches scored significantly lower on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests than those who were not eligible for the same program. Based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, School Year 2005-2006, about 52 percent of the approximately 739,000 students in Alabama’s public school systems are eligible for free/reduced price school lunches. And as other national studies have shown, there is a direct correlation between poverty and academic outcomes.
In the schools with the worst scores, the majority of their students were from low-income households, of which many are single-parent, female-headed households. And once again, as other studies have shown, the single biggest predictor of academic failure is not per-pupil funding or the student-to-teacher ratio or even how many computers the school can put in their classrooms. It is the percentage of students who are growing up in fatherless homes. These are the children who are most likely to fall behind, drop out of school or wind up in jail.
As Dr. Hill’s report shows, the typical approach of simply pouring more money into the schools to try to improve the situation does not guarantee any significant improvement in academic outcomes. That is not to say that money is unimportant, only that there are some issues that cannot be solved with more money, especially in schools with a high percentage of students from highly disadvantaged households.
While additional funding for programs such as the Alabama Reading Initiative and the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative can help improve academic outcomes, these programs alone are not enough. Alabama needs to implement other approaches to improving education outcomes. In areas where the majority of students are from low-income households, charter schools could provide an alternative. Charter schools are publicly-funded schools that are not constrained by the same bureaucratic rules that govern public schools.
Alabama has made some improvements in its public schools, most notably in 4th and 8th grade reading scores. However, in order for the state to improve education outcomes for children growing up in the most disadvantaged households and at the greatest risk of failure, the state needs to step outside the confines of the public school system and give these children an opportunity to attend a charter or private school. Alabama’s elected officials and other leaders need to seriously examine the findings of this report to determine why our outputs continue to be among the worst in the nation, even though the state ranks above the national average in many inputs and has significantly increased education funding during the last decade.
Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.

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