By John Garen
Conflict over public school financing arose again in the last legislative session, continuing the long-standing concern about the funding and performance of public schools. A recent report, of which I am co-author, was released by the Pegasus Institute that speaks to these issues by presenting several facts and patterns regarding Kentucky’s K-12 system over the past two-and-a-half decades. (See https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/7b8e16_e325c97c4ead4244bbc0fb43c27a125d.pdf.)
In particular, the report presents the roughly 25-year record of Kentucky’s National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test scores, inflation-adjusted per pupil funding, the “bang-per-buck” of taxpayer funds, and test score achievement gaps. Regarding the commonwealth’s NAEP scores, there have been some improvements, varying from minimal to modest. For example, grade 8 reading scores rose by 1.1 percent from 1998 to 2017, while grade 4 math scores rose 11.2 percent between 1992 and 2017.
However, data drawn from the National Center for Educational Statistics’ (NCES) documents a 45 percent increase in per pupil funding for Kentucky over this time frame, even after adjusting for inflation.
The report examines the “bang-per-buck” of taxpayer dollars by computing NAEP test score achievement points per $1,000 of per pupil funding. This metric fell almost continuously during this time period, dropping by at least 20 percent for all NAEP tests – though it is higher in Kentucky than for the nation as a whole. The only persistent increase in bang-per-buck was during the years 2009 to 2013. This increase was largely due to the temporary, post-recession reduction in per pupil funding around this time and not to any substantial rise in test scores. Thus, productivity has generally fallen as funding has risen.
While the long-term increase in funding seems to have little association with average test scores for the commonwealth, the report considers whether it served to improve outcomes for disadvantaged groups and thereby lowered Kentucky’s achievement gaps. The findings are that African American student scores rose minimally/modestly, as have those of white students. Thus, the difference between white and African American test scores barely changed over the past 25 years. If anything, the score gap has widened somewhat of late. Similarly, the gap between students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (representing those from low-income families) and non-eligible students has hardly changed.
The overall picture is one of long-standing funding increases, modest or minimal test score improvements, and unchanging achievement gaps. While strong NAEP test scores are not the only worthwhile outcome of an educational system, the cognitive skills measured by NAEP tests are important aspects of educational achievement. The lack of progress in this regard points to the report’s conclusion that “concerns continue about the performance of the commonwealth’s public education system.”
What lessons do we learn from the report and what might be done about the concerns it raises? It seems clear that more funding has not served to significantly improve school performance. Kentucky’s efforts at reform largely have been increased funding, accompanied by more rules and control from Frankfort. Though noteworthy instances of significant school improvement are to be applauded, they are unfortunately isolated cases that are drowned out in the overall tide of more funding, more bureaucracy and little improvement.
To get ahead, it seems clear that Kentucky needs to move beyond the previous approach. Our teachers and school principals are more than capable of providing first-rate educational services to students. The challenge is understanding how they can be enabled to do so by empowering their innovative and entrepreneurial ideas. A good education is not a one-size-fits-all enterprise and is not accomplished by control from a central bureaucracy, which usually ends up handcuffing and frustrating teachers and school principals. Equally important is for Kentucky to figure out how to reward and hold accountable our schools, administrators and teachers for good results as measured not just by test scores, but also by other metrics such as parent satisfaction. Accomplishing these goals is what ought to be on the policy agenda.
John Garen is BB&T Professor of Economics at the University of Kentucky and Senior Fellow at the Pegasus Institute.