Education funds not being spent wisely

Commentary — By on September 4, 2013 at 9:24 am

The op-ed below by Justin Owen, Benjamin Clark, and Alexandria Gilbert outlines the findings of Beacon’s new education spending study. This article originally appeared in Wednesday’s Tennessean. A similar article appeared in Sundays’ Knoxville News Sentinel (subscription required).

by Justin Owen, Benjamin Clark, and Alexandria Gilbert

These days, virtually every discussion about public education in Tennessee fixates on issues of funding. Tennesseans are continuously told that their schools are among the worst funded in the country and that all that is necessary to fix failing schools is to pour more money into them.

In a new Beacon Center of Tennessee report, we decided to look more deeply into this issue. First, we analyzed how much taxpayers actually spend on education in Tennessee. Second, we tracked where that money goes, and finally we sought to determine whether there is any correlation between spending and student achievement.

Surprisingly, our study found that not only do we already spend a significant amount on public education, the total cost of education is underreported by about 11 percent statewide. Metro Nashville takes the underreporting prize, spending a full 27 percent more than reported. More accurate figures show the district spends more than $14,000 per child, per year.

And where that money goes is troubling. Of the total amount spent statewide, barely half goes toward instructional expenditures such as teacher salaries, textbooks, supplies, etc. In Metro Nashville, an appalling 44 cents of every dollar goes directly to the classroom. This is significantly less than the minimum standard of 60 percent that should be allocated to instructional spending, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Where does the rest of that money go? Administrative expenses eat up a growing chunk of education dollars. Between 2000 and 2012, administrative expenses per pupil rose from $450 to $793. Even worse, Metro Nashville officials have nearly doubled the amount they spend on administrative expenditures per pupil.

Much of this represents a substantial rise in the number of administrative personnel. Since 2000, the number of administrators statewide has grown by nearly 35 percent. During the same time period, teacher personnel has increased by less than 17 percent, while the change in the number of students was a mere 7 percent. Not only has the number of administrators risen more dramatically than teachers and students, their salaries have outpaced teacher salaries as well.

Unfortunately, this focus on administrative growth has failed to lead to results. By conducting in-state and state-versus-state comparisons, we could find no measurable correlation between spending and student performance, primarily failing to find a link between this newfound administrative spending and academic growth.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, many school districts spent less yet outperformed their similarly situated counterparts. This lack of correlation between spending and outcomes should spark a deeper debate about real reforms.

There is much opportunity for reforms such as empowering parents through school choice, paying teachers better and rewarding them based on merit, encouraging business and community leaders to enter the teaching profession.

Simply throwing more money at the problem is not the answer. Instead of spending more on public education, school districts should spend education funds more wisely. Only then can we expect to provide our students with the quality education they deserve.

Justin Owen is president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Benjamin Clark and Alexandria Gilbert are research associates at the Beacon Center and co-authors of “Following the Money: A Tennessee Education Spending Primer.”

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