Civitas recently published findings on the cost of a high school diploma in North Carolina and academic performance – and the results undercut the myth that money alone can buy good education.
What did we find? On average, North Carolina spent about $150,000 to educate a high school graduate. Second, we also found the costs local education associations (LEAs) spent varied widely. For example, Hyde County spent $266,831 to educate a high school graduate; Randolph County spent $114, 129 to do the same. That means the costs to educate a high school graduate in Hyde County are 133 percent higher than the costs to educate a high school graduate in Randolph County.
Since differences may result from a combination of localized and general factors, we decided to average the five highest- and lowest-spending LEAs. The table below includes spending and academic results for the five highest- and lowest-spending LEAs as well as averages for each group.
|School System||Total PPE (2012 $)||4yr- Graduation Rate||$ Per HSG||$/Year||% of Grades 3-8 Student Scores at/above Grade Level in Reading (2012)||% of Grade 3-8 Student Scores at/above Grade Level in Math (2012)||% of passing scores on End-of-Course Tests (2012)||% Students Participating in SAT (2012)||Ave. SAT Score (2012)||Ave. ACT Score (2012)||% of Students that met all 4 benchmark scores in Reading, Math, Eng. & Science (2012)|
What do we learn?
Overall Spending. The average of the five highest-spending LEAs is $227,038, while the average for the five lowest-spending LEAs is $114,877. Thus, average spending for the five highest-spending LEAs is almost twice that of the lowest-spending LEAs.
Graduation Rates. Only two of the five-highest spending LEAs have graduation rates higher than the state average (82.5 percent). All five of the lowest-spending districts best the state average — by an average of seven percentage points.
Academic Indicators. Four of the five highest-spending LEAs performed below the state average on the percentage of Grade 3-8 students who performed at grade level on math and reading and the percentage of passing scores on end-of-course testing. Three of the five lowest-spending LEAS bested the state average on the same measures. The only LEA that failed to meet the state average on all three measures was the lowest spending LEA, Randolph County Schools.
SAT/ACT/Benchmark Scores. Let’s consider average SAT, ACT scores, and the percentage of schools that met all four key achievement benchmarks – English, science, mathematics and reading. The five highest-spending districts had an average SAT score a full 89 points below the state average of 1001. ACT scores for the same group were a full point-and-a-half below the state average of 18.7.
How do low-spending districts compare on the same indicators? Even with two LEAs having average scores that significantly exceed the state average, average SAT scores for low-spending districts are 7 points below the state average.
Finally with regard to the percentage of schools meeting the four benchmarks, the average percentage of students from the five highest-spending districts is slightly above the state average. However, those numbers are likely skewed by the high score from Asheville and the loss of two scores because of low numbers of test takers. We shouldn’t overlook the fact that, among these schools, the only LEA above the state average in the academic categories is Asheville City Schools. The four other LEAs have scores well below the state average.
Lastly, with regard to the lowest-spending districts, only one LEA (Union County) had a percentage higher than the state average for meeting all four benchmarks. In addition, the overall average benchmarks score of the lowest-spending districts was 2 percentage points lower than the state average.
Several questions emerge from these patterns:
Does money buy academic achievement? There is no correlation between money and higher academic performance. Higher-spending LEAs do not demonstrate higher academic outcomes. The absence of a connection between money and student achievement is not a new finding. It merely echoes findings that have been around for years, but generally ignored.
Is additional money having the desired outcomes? The North Carolina system for financing public schools provides additional monies to LEAs with low wealth or higher percentages of disadvantaged or at-risk students. Our results suggest these investments are not having the desired impacts.
Is money the key variable in determining academic achievement? The results seem to be saying that while money is not unimportant, it is far from the key variable that if changed will automatically propel student achievement. These findings should direct our focus on other variables impacting student achievement such as teacher quality, class size, retention and school quality.
While factors such as per capita income, poverty, and size of at-risk student population as well as a local community’s commitment to funding public education all influence education spending decisions, that’s only half the ledger. Citizens need to know not only what local communities are spending. They also need to know how local communities are performing academically. The results reviewed here raise cast doubt on the assumption of a linkage between money and academic achievement. They also suggest much of the money we spend to improve the academic performance of schools is not having the desired effect.
These realities should convince us that money is no “magic bullet” solution for school reform. Rather, our focus must remain on the range of variables that can provide the best opportunity for educational achievement including teacher quality as well as expanded access to proven public charter schools and private school choice programs.