Budget & Finance

Where Are the Nation’s ‘Most Productive’ School Districts?

By Evie Blad — July 09, 2014 4 min read
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Is your school district spending its likely tight budget on the right things? New reports suggest many aren’t.

Three reports released today by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, examine whether districts are properly targeting their budgets to areas that will most effectively address academic success for students. The reports are a follow-up to a similar assessment the group completed in 2011. In Return on Investment 2014, the organization assessed the “educational productivity” of more than 7,000 districts by measuring “the achievement that a school district produces relative to its spending, while controlling for factors outside a district’s control, such as the cost of living and students living in poverty.”

How did they do that? The report uses a metric that factors in the most recent data available—spending information from 2010-11 and the results of 2010-11 state reading and math assessments in elementary, middle, and high school—to determine how much return on its investment a district gets relative to other districts in its state. “To avoid penalizing districts where education costs are higher, we adjusted for a variety of factors, including cost-of-living differences and higher concentrations of low-income, non-English-speaking, and special education students,” the report says. This color-coded matrix then shows how districts are graded.

The rankings for every district the Center for American Progress assessed are available online in this interactive data tool. From the report:

“Our research suggests there is large and significant lost educational capacity in our school system, and highly inefficient districts exist in almost every state, with more than 1 million students nationally enrolled in low-productivity districts. More than 275 school districts around the country were rated highly inefficient on all three of our productivity metrics. These districts serve about 3 percent of the more than 41 million students covered by our study.

To be clear, the issue here is not that any districts are necessarily wasting money on their education efforts. Rather, the issue is that too many districts are spending taxpayer money in ways that do not appear to dramatically boost reading and math scores, and some districts are able to gain similar levels of reading and math achievement with the same population of students but at lower levels of per-student spending. In other words, we need to do more to follow the lead of the top-performing districts and ensure that school dollars go to improving results.”

Districts have been asked to do “more with less” in recent years as academic expectations continued to increase while many state and local budgets dropped below previous levels, the report says. Productivity and efficiency will be even more important as most districts work to implement Common Core State Standards, which encourage deeper exploration of content areas, it adds. Examining the data as a whole, the report’s author, Senior Fellow Ulrich Boser, drew a few conclusions:

  • Productivity remains a problem. “Thousands of school districts ranked poorly on at least one of our productivity metrics; hundreds showed low scores on all three of our productivity metrics,” the report says.
  • Affluent districts weren’t immune from problems. Only slightly more than one-third of the districts in the top third in spending were also in the top third in achievement.
  • Many districts have “misplaced” spending priorities. “Texas is one of the few states that report athletic spending at the district level, and the state’s data suggest that more than 100 districts in Texas spend upward of $500 per student on athletics,” the report says. “A few districts in Texas spend more than $1,000 per student annually on athletics. To keep these numbers in perspective, the average unadjusted per-pupil operating expenditure in the state in 2013 was around $10,000.”

The report also found widely varying approaches to state funding. Only a few states take student need into account when determining school funding, few analyze the productivity of their districts, and wide gaps continue to exist between districts in per-pupil spending in most states, the report says. To help remedy those issues, the authors recommend that states use targeted grants and metrics to assess and improve productivity of districts, work together to improve the quality of fiscal data across state lines, and develop “smarter, fairer approaches to school funding.”

The two other reports the Center for American Progress released take a deeper look at school funding issues. In one, Rutgers University education professor Bruce Baker explores “America’s Most Financially Disadvantaged School Districts and How They Got that Way,” drawing policy recommendations from observations of poor districts. “Parallel Lives, Different Outcomes” explores the productivity of 400 demographically similar “twin” school districts in the same states.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.