Every year about this time, hand-wringers from Powder Springs to Pooler start warming up their paws. They know the latest national stats about education spending are soon to be released, and they want to be good and ready to lament Georgia’s place on the list.
Well, break out the sack cloth: We placed a mere 38th in the nation for school spending in 2014, about $1,800 per child below the national average, in the latest batch of data reported by the Census Bureau. Let the weeping and wailing begin.
Of course, it’s also time for the annual reality check about whether these figures mean anything.
The same report produces indicators that are more positive. Georgia ranked a bit higher (33rd) in terms of money spent on instruction — and a lofty 13th when education spending is measured against personal income, a proxy for cost-of-living differences.
But none of these rankings tells us whether more money leads to better results.
For that, I looked to the gold standard of state-to-state comparisons: the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.
The NAEP’s handy online tool tells us whether differences in scores among states are statistically significant. I cross-referenced the spending rankings with the scores for four common tests: reading and math for the fourth and eighth grades. It became clear that the 37 bigger spenders (including the District of Columbia) were about as likely to over-perform — or under-perform — Georgia as were the 13 more miserly states.
The best the big-spenders can say about themselves is they were a little more likely to get higher scores when all students were measured: half of the higher-spending states did so, vs. just 38 percent of the lower-spending states.
But again, we have to account for the relatively wealthier populations in some states, knowing what we know about the tie between household income and school success. Besides, isn’t one of the main arguments for higher school spending that it’s needed to help close the gap between white students and minorities, and between poor kids and the non-poor?
Funny, that. Because on those counts, the higher-spending states look rather ordinary.
The states that spent more than Georgia were just as likely as the lower-spending states to produce better test scores among black students, or to have narrower gaps than Georgia between white students’ scores and black students’ scores. (Actually, it’s more precise to say hardly any states out-did Georgia in those regards.)
The same was true for poor kids (defined as those qualifying for free or reduced lunch), and for the gap between them and their better-off classmates. If anything, the lower-spending states actually performed a bit better on those counts.
Rather than pounding the table about how much we spend on our schools, it would be far more useful to ask what similar, but higher-performing, states are doing that we aren’t, whether they spend more than us (e.g., Virginia) or less (such as Florida and North Carolina).
That would be harder, and it would require using our hands for something other than wringing. But it’d be a lot more useful.