Kentucky Proves Big Spending Isn’t Always Needed to Help Students Succeed

Lane Wright is the Director of Policy Analysis for Education Post, former press secretary to Governor Rick Scott of Florida, and a father of three living in Tallahassee. An earlier version of this piece appeared in The Courier-Journal.


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 Kentucky? 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 Colorado and Kentucky. 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 Kentucky 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 Colorado and Kentucky above, partly because I’ve worked in both 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 ranking near the bottom in per-student funding, Kentucky ranks among the top 10 states when it comes to fourth graders’ reading scores.

Colorado ranks 10th among 50 states and the District of Columbia for 8th graders reading at or above grade level and in the top 15 for 4th graders. Yet the Quality Counts report ranked them among the lowest spending states. I don’t know about you, but I call that efficiency.

Washington D.C., on the other hand, is one of the top spenders in education, but ranked dead last for 8th graders reading at or above proficient, and third from the bottom for 4th graders. They also came in last 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 Colorado and Kentucky 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 are 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.”

What do you think?

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