Public school spending per student has increased by 63 percent during the last decade, outpacing both enrollment growth and inflation, according to a new report by Texas Comptroller Susan Combs could help trim school spending without sacrificing educational quality.
Connecting the Dots: School Spending and Student Progress identifies Texas school districts that achieve strong student performance while keeping spending growth to a minimum. The report and a companion website provide a unique analysis of public education spending and academic results, allowing lawmakers and school districts to compare similar public and charter schools across the state, identify efficiencies and make substantive improvements to get the most value for the dollars spent.
School Spending and Student Progress identifies Texas school districts that achieve strong student performance while keeping spending growth to a minimum, according to the report.
The report and a companion website provide a unique analysis of public education spending and academic results, allowing lawmakers and school districts to compare similar public and charter schools across the state, identify efficiencies and make substantive improvements to get the most value for the dollars spent.
“We all want students to excel academically, and it takes a certain amount of spending to realize that goal, but what is the right amount?” Combs said. “We need to fully understand the relationship between student progress and spending.”
The 2009 Legislature directed the Comptroller’s office to develop a method to compare school districts on a level playing field and to determine which districts and campuses allocate their financial resources in a manner that contributes to high academic achievement and cost-effective operations.
“In a state as large and diverse as Texas, drawing apples-to-apples comparisons is no easy task,” Combs said. “Our school districts vary greatly in geographic size, student population, demographics and costs. Many factors influence student learning, including factors both in and outside school. Similarly, the cost of education is influenced by many factors, some beyond the districts’ control.”
Drawing upon data from the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Schools Project of the University of Texas at Dallas and the expertise of UT-Dallas, UT-Austin, Texas A&M University and Texas educators, the Comptroller created the Financial Allocation Study for Texas (FAST) methodology, a first-of-its-kind system that ensures fair and unbiased comparisons of school districts and campuses. FAST was reviewed by multiple in-state and out-of-state experts to validate its methods and findings.
“What we created is a new kind of report that uses a unique rating system to balance student progress against school spending in an unbiased fashion,” Combs said. “The FAST system includes controls for the diverse range of students and the varying educational costs in Texas school districts — resulting in realistic and useful comparisons.”
Using FAST methodology, each school district and campus, including charter schools, is assigned the following:
• A rating of student progress in reading and math, measured using a value-added model with controls for the varying characteristics of students, campuses and districts.
• A spending rating, from “Very Low” to “Very High,” that rates the district’s spending compared to up to 40 peer districts that operate in similar cost environments, are of similar size and serve similar students
• A FAST rating, from one to five stars, that integrates academic progress and spending to identify districts that produce strong academic growth at a lower cost than their peers. School districts that earn five stars have a “Very High” student progress rating and a “Very Low” spending rating. Alternately, one-star districts have very low student progress and very high spending compared to their fiscal peers.
Only 43 of the 1,235 school districts and charter schools the Comptroller analyzed received a five-star FAST rating.
“The ratings do not judge the relative value of spending versus academic progress,” Combs said.
“Different schools have different priorities and constraints.”
Online tools also allow comparisons among peer districts using different lenses such as dropout rates, transportation spending or math scores. No other report offers the same level of detail.
“Connecting the Dots” includes a compilation of Smart Practices that provide blueprints for improving school operations. The Smart Practices were gathered by studying five-star school districts and charter schools, contacting other districts showing low spending or strong academic performance and consulting education experts. The Smart Practices include innovations in facilities, business services, staffing, technology and student services.
The report makes 20 recommendations to give school districts greater flexibility to enact efficiencies. These are a few of the recommendations:
• Share school facilities and services with community colleges and other local government entities to generate cost savings for all.
• Encourage school districts to use purchasing cooperatives and compare prices for goods and services with prices available through the state procurement system.
• Increase the educational opportunities available to students by reducing barriers to online coursework; and replace traditional textbooks with e-textbooks costing up to 40 percent less.
• Standardize reporting of campus financial data to help identify low- and high-cost programs.
• Relax the limit of 22 students in K-4 classes to permit an average of 22 students per class.
Connecting the Dots: School Spending and Student Progress is published in its entirety on the FAST website, www.FASTexas.org. The website includes complete details of school districts’ Smart Practices, all of Combs’ recommended education policy changes and all of the tools users need to compare school districts through the FAST lenses and create detailed, customized reports on school spending and academic achievement.
The study and online research tools are available free of charge to anyone. The study will be updated annually, making it a tool that will continue to allow taxpayers to see where the money goes in public education, prompting further discussion of cost versus quality in education.
“Taxpayers are within their rights to expect exceptional academic achievement, and they are also entitled to receive the best value for their tax dollars,” Combs said.