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Do The Math: More Money Doesn't Equal Quality Education

By Benjamin DeGrow

Election season must be here because tired old myths have reemerged about where Colorado stands in funding K-12 education.

Former state legislator Phil Pankey returned from the Granby Rotary Club meeting on September 7, knowing he had heard the East Grand School District superintendent tout misinformation in a public presentation.

“He said that Colorado ranked 49th in school funding,” Pankey noted. “He said were right down there with the poorer states.”

The alleged 49th ranking is meaningless in any legitimate analysis of school finance: it merely measures the amount spent on education for every $1,000 of income earned by the states residents. To hold the statistic as valid is to believe that the more money taxpayers have, the more they are obligated to spend on schools.

The comparison shows nothing, though, of the quantity or quality of what is purchased. The average American consumer spends less of his disposable income on food than he did 30 years ago. It does not mean that Americans eat less, worse or cheaper meals and snacks. It means we have accumulated enough wealth to invest more of our income in other areas.

A low standing in education spending based on personal income does not place Colorado, which actually ranks 45th by current figures, among “the poorer states.” As a prime example, Maryland finishes at 47th but has the nations fifth-highest per capita income.

Lets examine the facts.

In 2002-03, Colorado ranked 15th in average test scores while spending $7,384 per student, 31st in the nationnot 49th, but 31st. The figures, taken from the governments National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), are the most recent and reliable ones available. Other widely-recognized analyses, including one by the National Education Association (NEA), rank Colorado in the top 25 for per-pupil spending.

Maybe you have heard, though, that Colorado is rebounding from declining spending levels during the 1990s. One argument floated by Amendment 23 proponents during the 2000 campaign said, “When adjusted for inflation, school districts received less money per pupil in 1999 than they did 11 years ago.”

The statement is simply untrue. NCES data, adjusted for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, shows that Colorados per-pupil revenues grew nearly 10 percent from 1987-88 to 1998-1999, while expenditures grew more than 8.5 percent.

During a few individual years of the 1990s the states adjusted per-pupil spending figure actually did decline, but the long-term increase outweighed the temporary drops. Colorado has spent more on K-12 education per pupil in real dollars every school year since 1996-97, with several of the annual increases more substantial than the national average.

Yet even so, there is very little correlation between the amount of money states spend per pupil and the academic results they achievewhether measured by standardized test scores or high school graduation rates.

And there is no parallel at all between how fast a state grows education spending and how much student performance improves. A comparison of measurable states in per-pupil expenditures and average scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) from 1992 to 2003 showed 21 of 42 states increased spending faster than Colorado while improving test results less.

Regardless of the facts, some still believe the state does not spend enough on public schools, even after empty promises that more money leads to better results.

In the new age of CSAP tests and No Child Left Behind, officials held accountable to meet higher expectations have heightened their demands for more money to get the job done. The Colorado School Finance Project, a consortium of education special interests, says the states annual K-12 funding needs to add another $800 million to $1.5 billionroughly $1,000 to $2,000 per pupilto be “adequate.”

Yet when Colorado spends 58 cents of the K-12 education dollar in the classroom, where is the proof that officials are using current tax dollars to the fullest potential?

The primary focus of the education debate should not be on how much we spend but on how we spend it. Current resources should be dedicated to programs with proven results. Increased state contributions to K-12 education, if any, should be tied to the implementation of new reforms that give students and parents more choices, principals more authority and flexibility, and teachers more incentive to excel.

Most Coloradans want their tax dollars spent wisely and well, and they deserve to know the facts.