Via a reader email: Christina Settimi:
More spending doesn’t necessarily buy you better schools. With property taxes rising across the country, we took a look at per-pupil spending in public schools and weighed it against student performance–college entrance exam scores (SAT or ACT, depending on which is more common in the state), exam participation rates and graduation rates.
Winners in this rating system are counties whose schools deliver high performance at low cost. The losers spend a lot of money and have little to show for it.
Marin County, Calif., provides the best bang for the buck. In 2004 Marin spent an average of $9,356 ($6,579 adjusted for the cost of living relative to other metro areas in the U.S.) per pupil, among the lowest education expenditures in the country. But in return Marin delivered results above the national average: 96.8% of its seniors graduated, and 60.4% of them took the SAT college entrance exam and scored a mean 1133 (out of 1600). The others in the top five are Collin, Texas; Hamilton, Ind.; Norfolk, Mass.; and Montgomery, Md.
In Pictures: Best And Worst School Districts For The Buck
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Alexandria City, Va., which sits just six miles outside of our nation’s capital, spent $13,730 ($11,404 adjusted) per pupil, but its high schools registered only a 73% graduation rate, with 65.0% of the seniors participating in the SAT for a mean score of 963. According to John Porter, assistant superintendent, Administrative Services and Public Relations for the Alexandria City Public Schools, their graduation rate is reflective of a large number of foreign-born students who may take longer than the traditional four years to graduate. He also noted that their performance measures are rising, along with their expenditures. Per-pupil spending in Alexandria City is now over $18,000. Others on the bottom of the list include Glynn, Ga.; Washington, D.C.; Ulster, N.Y.; and Beaufort, S.C.
Using research provided by the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax research group based in Washington, D.C., Forbes began with a list of the 775 counties in the country with populations greater than 65,000 that had the highest average property taxes. From this list we isolated the 97 counties where more than 50% of per-pupil spending contributions comes from property taxes. ( Click Here For Full Rankings)
Since it costs more to educate a student in New York than Alabama, we adjusted expenditures for each metropolitan area based on Economy.com’s national cost of living average. We then chose to compare spending to the only performance measures that can be used to compare students equally across the country. With a nod toward recognizing the importance of education, performance was weighted twice against cost. Performance and cost numbers are county averages; individual school districts within a county can vary greatly.
Education scholars and school system officials greeted the study as a flawed answer to a fascinating question: Which school districts deliver the best results for the tax dollars citizens invest?
“The value of this kind of analysis is to remind us that simply pouring more [money] into existing school systems is no formula for producing higher achievement out the other end,” Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said in an e-mail.
But Finn derided this analysis as “just plain dumb” for failing to consider other factors, such as wealth and parent education, that affect test scores and graduation prospects.
The Forbes study takes the unusual approach of rating school systems from a stockbroker’s perspective — or, more specifically, the perspective of a stockbroker raising a family in the D.C. suburbs. Rather than simply rank them by SAT participation or outcome or graduation rate, it considers all three measures and a fourth, dollars spent.
The endeavor is skewed toward affluent and suburban schools, educators said, because of the focus on local property taxes; wealthier jurisdictions tend to pay a greater share of education costs from their own tax coffers. The top three systems in the resulting ranking are all suburban: Marin County, just north of San Francisco; Collin County, near Dallas; and Hamilton County, outside Indianapolis.