The other day I imagined myself rich enough to be looking out of the floor-to-ceiling windows of a plush mansion on the beach and shaking my head, solemnly, as I whisper to myself. “Biggie and P. Diddy were right, man. Mo money. Mo Problems.”
I’m pretty sure I would love to be that rich and to have whatever those “problems” might be. I suspect a lot of state governments and school districts would too. I mean, it’s common knowledge that more money is better.
Want a better home? More money.
Better health care? More money.
Better schools in Florida? More money, right?
Wrong. But don’t worry. If you thought more state money meant better schools you’d be in good company—company which includes the authors of a just-out Education Week study that grades states by how much they spend on schools.
As I read the 2018 Quality Counts report from the venerable news site, I could almost hear the defenders of bureaucracy cheering in the distance: “Yes! Now we can demand more money!”
The report, which is based on 2015 spending figures, dished out F grades to 26 states including Florida and Utah. But the way they assigned those grades is deeply flawed. It ignores how well students are doing in those states and makes a judgement about school quality based almost exclusively on dollar amounts.
“The leading state receives 100 points for the indicator;” the report states. “Other states earn points in proportion to their performance as benchmarked against the national leader.”
In other words, these grades show how well Florida is keeping up with the Joneses. The biggest spenders get As and everyone else’s grade is determined by they measure up, regardless of how well students are actually learning.
I mention Florida and Utah above, partly because I’ve lived in both of those states, but also because they are two examples of why it’s foolish to assume more spending automatically translates to better student outcomes.
Using 2015 data from the Nation’s Report Card, the gold standard for measuring student performance, you’ll find that despite having the lowest per-student funding, Utah ranks among the top 10 states when it comes to fourth graders reading at or above the proficiency bar.
Florida, another F-state according to the report, ranks comfortably in the top 20. Fun fact: Hispanic students in Florida, out-performed Hispanic students in every other state that year, despite the Sunshine State’s low funding. I don’t know about you, but I call that efficiency.
Alaska, on the other hand, ranked near the bottom—42nd of 50 states and the district of Columbia—despite getting the top score for spending in EdWeek’s “Quality Counts” report.
And D.C. Public Schools, another one of the top spenders in education, ranked dead last for 8th graders reading at or above proficient, and third from the bottom for 4th graders. They also came in last, compared to low-income students in other states, for the number of low-income 4th and 8th graders reading at or above grade level.
Money in schools has always been a hot topic, but right now it’s glowing bright orange.
Last month teachers across the country went on strike demanding better pay. Charter schools are increasingly under attack for supposedly sucking the money from traditional schools like a vampire after a blood fast.
Money conversations are critical, but we should be looking at states like Utah and Florida to figure out what they’re doing right, or discussing how to use money to help teachers improve, or how to keep high-quality charter schools without guilt-tripping them for the legacy debt the school district’s now struggling to cover.
It’s not about who spends the most, but who spends the smartest. It’s not whose bureaucracy is biggest, but most efficient.
I’m sure we’d all like to be P Diddy rich, or if you’re a government, ballin’ like Qatar, but the bottom line is if you’re spending more money simply for spending’s sake, you’ll most certainly run into “mo problems.”