August 5, 2013

Bigger Budgets Don’t Always Lead To Academic Success

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Aneri conducting an interview.

Aneri conducting an interview.

Conventional wisdom suggests that spending more on education leads to greater academic success, but the numbers tell a different story.

Data from the Connecticut State Department of Education show that increased per pupil expenditure does not necessarily lead to higher graduation rates.  In fact, there appears to be no correlation between the two factors in an examination of four Connecticut districts.

Aneri conducting an interview.

Aneri interviewing M'lik.

“I don’t think money has anything to do with education,” Wolcott Superintendent of Schools Joseph Macary said. “Too many times, people throw money at the problem and it doesn’t solve anything.”

Two districts that fall at the high end of spending and two that spent thousands less were examined, and mixed results were found. Some schools that spent a lot had high graduation rates, while others were unable to produce great results even with a large budget.

Regional School District 11 in Chaplin had one of the highest expenditures in 2007-2008 at $18,864 per pupil.  This was approximately $6,000 above the state average of $12,757.

The expenditure yielded positive results for the district, as it achieved a graduation rate of 94.6 for the Class of 2008, which was above the state average of 92.1.

However, the data shows that it is not always necessary to have a large education budget in order to produce many graduates.

Watertown achieved a graduation rate of 95.2 after spending only $10,151 per student in 2007-2008, the state data shows.. The district’s graduation rate was three percent higher than Regional School District 11’s rate even though it spent 46 percent less per pupil.

The more intuitive idea that spending more brings results can still hold true in some cases.

Regional School District 12 in Washington spent $18,198 per student in 2007-2008, which paid off with a 100 percent graduation rate for the Class of 2008.

Patricia Cosentino, the district’s superintendent, attributes this success to small schools, a substantial budget and a supportive community.

“Educational spending absolutely affects academic success,” she said. “I’ve worked in school systems that don’t have the funds to give students what they need, and it’s clear that the economic situation of a town always has an impact on student achievement.”

Aneri at Quinnipiac

Aneri at Quinnipiac

Although Cosentino acknowledges that the Region 12’s budget is sufficient, she has specific goals in mind that could be accomplished with more money.

Currently, all eighth, ninth and tenth graders in the district have personal Chromebook laptops, but the school system is working towards acquiring them for all grades within the next few years. This money will come from funding and grants outside of the education budget.

At the opposite end of spending, Wolcott’s per pupil expenditure was $10,216, which is below the state average.

The district also had a graduation rate that was below the state average at 91.7.

Macary said the tight budget was not a factor in the lower graduation rate, but he added that Wolcott often works with a tight budget.

“I believe that the number one indicator for student learning is the hiring of high quality teachers,” he said.  “So that’s what we focus on.”

Macary said he focuses on hiring and supervising good teachers and maintaining clean classrooms without worrying about added perks such as instructional coaches.  A larger budget would not solve the issue of high school dropouts, he said.

With certain school districts on a tight budget struggling to match the state graduation rate while other districts achieving success with less money, no clear pattern emerges. Nationally, generous spending on schools does not always translate into better outcomes.

Alaska spent $16,663 per student during the 2012-2013 school year, which is the fourth highest spending in the country.  Yet it had the fourth lowest graduation rate, as reported by the Las Vegas Sun.

Other states that spent the most on education but ranked among the lowest graduation rates included Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and West Virginia.

This leads to important questions as many in government push for larger education budgets even in times of economic hardship. Some people may think it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars.

There are other downsides to consider.  The Alliance for Excellent Education estimated that the lost lifetime earnings from the Class of 2008 who dropped out of high schools in Connecticut will amount to nearly $2.5 billion.

Aneri Pattani is a 2013 graduate of Cheshire High School. She will study journalism in the fall at Northeastern University.

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