Let’s Stop Throwing Good Education Money After Bad

December 15, 2008

For release Dec. 17 and thereafter (652 words)

On Dec. 4, the Indiana Department of Education released the latest ISTEP (Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress) results for Indiana students. They were stagnant. Despite higher academic standards and more spending by taxpayers, scores showed no improvement from the previous year.
   
The next day, in an odd coincidence of timing, the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA) was before the State Supreme Court demanding a trial on its lawsuit challenging the school funding formula. The suit alleges that inadequate funding deprives some Indiana children of the chance to meet proficiency standards.
   
A Marion Superior Court initially dismissed ISTA’s suit as a matter more appropriate for the legislative branch, which funds schools. The Indiana Court of Appeals disagreed and ordered the case to trial, which the state appealed. On Dec. 5, the high court heard arguments to determine if a trial should take place.
   
Have you noticed? No matter how many taxpayer dollars we throw at education, there are folks who think it’s never enough? This gives them a handy excuse every time test scores fail to rise in proportion to the public school budget. Which is pretty much all the time.
   
This year the bar graphs aren’t even moving in the same direction. In fiscal 2009, Indiana taxpayers will spend a record $4.4 billion on K-12 education, one-third of the state budget and up from $4.2 billion in 2008. In 2008, 32 percent of eighth graders failed the English portion of ISTEP, up from 31 percent in 2007. Thirty-one percent of tenth graders failed the math portion of ISTEP this year, up from 30 percent the year before.
   
Do we really think funding is the problem? And that a class-action lawsuit by a hired gun for the teachers union is the solution?
   
The ISTA has retained as lead counsel Michael D. Weisman of Boston, who spent more than 15 years earlier in his career arguing a similar case on behalf of Massachusetts public school kids. In 1993, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision in McDuffy v. Secretary holding that the state had a constitutional duty to provide all public school students with a quality education.
   
A lot has happened since 1993. For starters, Massachusetts and the rest of the country have passed more accountability laws and spent a lot more money on education. And there’s not much more quality to show for it.
   
In a September report, “Does Spending More on Education Improve Academic Achievement?” the Heritage Foundation said,    “Many people believe that lack of funding is a problem in public education, but historical trends show that American spending on public education is at an all-time high.”
   
Between 1994 and 2004, average per-pupil expenditures in U.S. public schools rose 23.5 percent after being adjusted for inflation. Over the same period, reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) stayed flat. “A basic comparison of long-term spending trends with long-term measures of student academic achievement challenges the belief that spending is correlated with achievement.”
   
Graduation rates haven’t improved much either. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average graduation rate in 1990-91 was 73.7 percent. By 2004–2005, the rate had increased to 74.7 percent. In the latest estimate for the 2005–2006 school year, the rate fell to 73.4 percent.
   
We don’t need a trial to tell us there’s not much relationship between per pupil spending and academic achievement in Indiana. In 2005-06, the latest year for which national census data are available, we ranked 18th in spending per pupil at $11,028, above the national average. On the SAT this year, Indiana students showed a one-point gain in math, a one-point drop in reading and a two-point drop in writing for a combined score of 1485, below the national average of 1511.
   
The classic definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So it is with education. Maybe the problem isn’t how much money we’re spending, but how we’re spending it. My next column will take a look at that.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.

(Dr. Jeff Abbott, professor of education at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, will explain in next week’s column the statistical traps in analyzing ISTEP scores. That column will be followed by Andrea Neal’s look at how public education dollars are spent.)



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