School districts that spend more per pupil do not necessarily perform better, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress.
After examining more than 7,000 districts nationwide, researchers found that only 37 percent of the districts in the top third in spending were also in the top third in achievement.
“We have this notion in education that dollars always equal results, and that’s simply not the case,” says Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of the July report “Return on Educational Investment: 2014.” “There is wide variance on how districts spend their money, and the results they get for those dollars.”
It is especially important for districts to spend wisely today, since more than 30 states are now providing schools with less money than they did prior to the Great Recession, according to a 2014 study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The problem is that too many districts are spending taxpayer money on programs and curricula that do not dramatically boost reading and math scores, Boser says. For example, Rondout Valley School District in southeast New York spent about $25,500 per pupil in 2011 (the latest year for which data is available), putting it in the state’s highest spending tier. But the district has lower achievement than others with similar demographics, and fourth grade math proficiency scores were nearly 30 percent below the state average.
Administrators should look at how top-performing districts with similar populations use their funds. Administrators and school boards also need to examine which programs are making a difference in student scores, and which are a waste of time and funding, Boser says.
Boser recommends states and districts adopt the weighted-student funding approach, where money is distributed to schools based on student needs. In this system, schools would receive more money for a student from a low-income background, or one with special needs. This will help solve equity and efficacy issues, he says. Only Rhode Island and a few other states and individual districts use this approach.
“Since the money follows the student, it’s more flexible, and having local educators and administrators make those decisions with those dollars is a good thing—they have more autonomy and the ability to innovate,” Boser says.