Cultural Indicators: the gap between education funding and outcomes

Group of teenagers sitting in the classroom with raised hands.Alabamians will likely spend almost six billion dollars on public K-12 education in the next academic year.  Like clockwork, grave concerns will be voiced in the next legislative session that this amount is not enough, and that higher taxes, an education lottery, or some other mechanisms to increase funding are necessary to meet the needs of our school children.

In truth, Alabama has always been on the low end when it comes to the dollars spent per student on public education.  According to estimates by the National Education Association, Alabama currently spends $8,841 per student on public K-12 education, about $2,500 less than the national average ($11,373).

To its credit, what Alabama spends on public education is far more than what it spent forty years ago.  Since 1970, the inflation-adjusted amount spent per student on public education in Alabama has almost tripled.  This increased spending has narrowed the gap between what is expended per child in Alabama and the national average from 32% in 1970 to 22% today.  Nevertheless, forty-one states and the District of Columbia spend more per child on public education than Alabama does.


This is a not a call to cut, raise, or hold the line on education funding.

Looking at these numbers, it is tempting to conclude that Alabama’s public education system is underfunded and, consequently, unable to provide a top-shelf academic experience to its students.  Such a determination would be a mistake, as there is almost no relationship between the overall amount of money spent per child on public K-12 education and how well they perform on standardized tests.

One way to measure whether student funding in Alabama has anything to do with academic accomplishment is by comparing our state to others using standardized tests.  An easy way to do this is with data from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) which was mandated by Congress in 1969 to monitor the knowledge, skills, and performance of the nation’s school children.  It is one of the few tests that allow state-by-state comparisons on a variety of subjects across different grades.

As mentioned earlier, four of every five states and the District of Columbia spend more per student on public education than Alabama does.  Yet of the nine states that spend less—Arizona, Idaho, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Texas, and Utah—seven of them have higher NAEP scores for fourth grade math than Alabama, eight have better scores for eighth grade reading, and all nine score higher on eighth grade math.  The only measure in which Alabama scores better is fourth-grade reading, but this edge appears to evaporate by eighth grade.


It makes sense for Alabamians to contemplate what they can do in their own homes to ensure that their children are ready to succeed academically.

At the district level, the relationship between what is spent on public education and what is learned is equally tenuous.  In the 2012-2013 academic year, schools in Anniston and Lowndes County both received more funding per student than their counterparts in prestigious Mountain Brook, yet both districts have some of the lowest graduation rates and standardized test scores in the state.  Of the ten school districts that spent the most per student, six of them had below-average scores for eighth-grade math, and seven of them had sub-par scores for eighth-grade reading.  If funding was linked to academic success, the richest schools would have the best scores, not some of the worst.

This is a not a call to cut, raise, or hold the line on education funding.  On the contrary, if merely increasing funding has not worked to improve the academic outcomes of students in Alabama for generations, we should look for other solutions.  Perhaps, as education analyst Richard Innes of the Bluegrass Institute suggests, “intellectual and cultural development of children by variables outside of the classroom—such as their families—are stronger predictors of success in the classroom than school funding.”   While funding for public education is unlikely to surge in the near future, it makes sense for Alabamians to contemplate what they can do in their own homes to ensure that their children are ready to succeed academically.


Dr. John Hill is senior research analyst at the Alabama Policy Institute, an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to defending and promoting free markets, limited government, fiscal responsibility and strong families through in-depth research and analysis of Alabama’s public policy issues.  If you would like to speak to the author, please call 205-870-9900 or email john@alabamapolicy.org.

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