Startling New Poverty Data

Low Income Students Now a Majority in the Nation’s Public Schools

The Southern Education Foundation published (January, 2015) a report showing that low income students became the majority population in US schools in 2013.  From the report:

“In 40 of the 50 states, low income students comprised no less than 40 percent of all public schoolchildren. In 21 states, children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches were a majority of the students in 2013.

Most of the states with a majority of low income students are found in the South and the West. Thirteen of the 21 states with a majority of low income students in 2013 were located in the South, and six of the other 21 states were in the West.”

This is indeed a startling development, but given the economic disruption cause by the economic downturn of 2008, it isn’t surprising.  Working and middle class families have had virtually no wage growth during the economic recovery, and increasingly conservative state governments (and some ‘moderate’ governments like New York) cut school funding significantly.  Most states have not returned to 2008 funding levels, and many continued to cut funding well after the recovery was significant.

National Center for Education Statistics Shows Continued Drop in Funding

NCES data for 2012 (released in January, 2015) shows that 2012 per pupil funding dropped for a second year.  The Ed Week report link here includes links to data sets and a related report from NCES detailing their findings.  Of note is the comment that charters spend less per pupil, which sounds economically important but totally neglects to point out that personnel costs at charters will, for several years into the future, be lower than public schools due to the nature of charter employees.  They are younger, less experienced, and have fewer (or virtually no) fringe benefits.  With public school personnel costs amounting to 66% of per pupil expenditures, and fringe benefits adding 24%, the ability of charters to spend less per pupil is a function of their lower personnel costs.

Money Matters in Schools

Critics of public schools constantly harp that increased per pupil expenditures don’t improve student performance and that higher local school tax rates decrease property values.  Professor John Mackenzie of the University of Delaware, and a school board member of the Christina schools in Delaware, looked at these questions in are article you can find online: Public School Funding and Performance.  He examined the two claims above, plus the combination of state funds and local school taxes and the combined effect on student performance on SAT scores and NAEP results.  Contrary to the critics, he found a clear positive correlation between funding and test performance.

Incomplete Analyses Show No Increase in Scores With Increased Expenditures

Where prior studies of SAT scores suggested that more money does not produce higher scores, Dr. Mackenzie’s more thorough analysis includes a test participation rate variable that significant changes the results of the analysis.  When test participation rates are included, 80 percent of the difference in SAT 1 verbal and math scores between states can be attributed to per pupil expenditures.  This explodes the myth that money doesn’t count!  Graphically, Figures 3-6 at the end of Mackenzie’s research illustrate multiple significant facts about the positive effect of spending on student performance.  Figure 3 is participation adjusted SAT scores vs. per pupil spending, Figure 4 is per pupil vs. aggregated NAEP scores, Figure 5 is spending vs. disaggregated 4 and 8 NAEP scores, and Figure 6 is property values vs. local school tax rates, where higher property taxes for schools correlate with higher property values, which Mackenzie suggests shows that home ownership and the quality of local schools go hand in hand.

“When Will We Ever Learn?”

Of course, I’m a child of the 60’s and folk music lyrics were a part of my integrated English and social studies middle school teaching repertoire.  So is the wisdom that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.  The current politicizing of education is replete with poorly designed research critical of public education, too often published by think tanks funded by foundations and donors dedicated to pulling public money into privitized educational programs.  Independent educational researchers who have been against the use of testing to discredit schools and research suggesting money doesn’t matter have been around since the rise of NCLB under the second Bush administration.  But their work was buried under the well-funded attacks on public education that fill an increasingly irresponsible media, where flashy reporting trumps responsible journalism.   Now that public opposition to test-based accountability is rampant across the nation, some of this research is seeing a breaking dawn.  Let’s get back to basing educational policy on research that is free of big money biases.


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