Elementary SchoolIn the Alabama State House, the familiar refrain surrounding public education is that the legislature has failed to ever “fully fund” it. The implication, of course, is that we cannot and should not expect positive outcomes from our public schools. This philosophy has been refuted by an enormous body of academic research and, last week, was specifically disproved by a report released by the U.S. Department of Education.

The report, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, is published every other year by the National Center for Education Statistics. By testing students in all fifty states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia on a variety of subjects such as math, reading, and science, the NAEP allows states to compare the academic progress of its students to the progress of students in other states. What the NAEP says about Alabama’s educational competitiveness underlies the need for our citizenry to reassess the link between what is spent on public K-12 education and what we get in return for our investment.

Alabama’s rankings on the NAEP in math and reading have largely collapsed. Since 2000, rankings in math for fourth and eighth grade students fell from 35th and 32nd place, respectively, to 51st and 50th place in 2015. Reading scores for Alabama students have been more of a mixed bag. The national ranking of fourth grade students has remained flat at between 39th and 40th place, but by the eighth grade have slipped from 38th place to 46th place from 2002 to 2015.

Over the same fifteen-year period, Alabama’s expenditures on public education continue to trail the national average. Since 2000, the inflation-adjusted gap between what Alabama spends per student on education and the nation as a whole has increased, from $1,760 to $2,500 in 2014. In the 2013-2014 school year, Alabama spent $8,841 per student on public education, less than thirty-eight other states and the District of Columbia.

Simple comparisons like this make it tempting to conclude that inadequate funding is the cause of Alabama’s woeful rankings, yet the NAEP scores disprove such an explanation.

First, what Alabama spends per student on education has risen substantially in the past fifteen years. Even after accounting for the disastrous economic effects of the Great Recession, Alabama’s per-student spending increased by an inflation-adjusted 14% between 2000 and 2014. Alabama’s spending on K-12 public education totaled almost $5.7 billion, or 18% of the state’s $31 billion budget (excluding employee benefits). Yet, the state’s rankings in reading and math have not improved. Notably, over the last decade, the state spent an average of $25 million per year on the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) alone.

Second, most of the eleven states that spent less per student than Alabama in 2013-2014 reported higher NAEP scores in almost every category in 2015. Specifically, all of them reported higher scores in math, eight had better scores in fourth grade reading, and ten had higher scores in eighth grade reading. Analyses conducted by NAEP in earlier years for science and writing show similarly disappointing results for Alabama.

If increased spending isn’t the key to better scores, perhaps state leaders should focus more on how education funds are allocated. Some Alabama administrators and teachers cite rigid formulas and earmarks that can handicap their ability to move additional resources directly to the classroom. Others note the state’s habit of creating new programs and initiatives year after year that must be funded to solve our problems. While well-meaning, these programs often discount the complex roots of causation and attempt across-the-board fixes rather than targeted ones. Furthermore, appropriators often fail to impose any stringent accountability when renewing funding for these programs.

The latest NAEP scores should motivate us to move beyond blaming our results on funding and focus instead on how to best use our existing resources to improve student outcomes.


MORE ON Education

Off With Their Heads!

This past week “IT” finally happened. Mississippi surpassed Alabama in overall rankings for K-12 education. What absolute fresh hell is this? In truth it is not that fresh. Alabama has been limping behind the pack for decades and this year’s “Nation’s Report Card” by the National Center for Education Statistics represented a final bottoming out. […]

HUNTSVILLE RADIO: School Choice and Tax Choice in Alabama

API Senior Fellow Rachel Bryars talked with WTKI's Fred Holland about how Alabamians can choose to send some of their income taxes to fund scholarships for low-income kids. They also discussed new research about human trafficking in Alabama and what parents need to watch out for.

MOBILE RADIO: How does ‘school choice’ = ‘tax choice’ in Alabama?

API Sr. Fellow Rachel Blackmon Bryars appeared on Mobile’s 1410 AM 94.5 FM LA Catholic Morning radio show to discuss how Alabamians can help low-income students who are stuck in low-performing schools by redirecting some of their income tax liability to a program that funds scholarships. It costs nothing but a few minutes and is […]

MORE ON Family

Children with Gender Dysphoria need Love and Compassion, Not Gender Reassignment

A recent case in the Texas courts became a catalyst for loud debate regarding the intersection of parental rights and appropriate treatment for gender dysphoria in children. A 7-year-old child of divorced parents, born male, is believed by his mother to be transgender and that his desire to be female should be affirmed. The father […]

Alabama Follows the Law, History in Forgoing Marriage Licenses

For just over a month now, Alabama officials have not issued marriage licenses. They instead record certificates memorializing marital contracts, signed by married couples and notarized. The law authorizing this change is a sensible and principled compromise. Indeed, it might be a model for other states. It accommodates both the opinion of the U.S. Supreme […]

MOBILE RADIO: New marriage laws in Alabama

API director of policy analysis Parker Snider recently appeared on Mobile Radio to discuss the shift in Alabama’s marriage laws from marriage licenses to marriage certificates. Snider answered questions about how this change will affect new marriages in the state, whether or not other laws were changed as well, and no-fault divorce. You can listen […]

MORE ON Fiscal Policy

J. Pepper Bryars: Time to stop daydreaming about a lottery

Lottery supporters were left saying “so close …” last week after the latest attempt to establish the game in Alabama collapsed under the weight of competing interests and power plays. It was reminiscent of the failed lotto player, successfully matching his numbers one-by-one until his hopes are dashed when that final digit proves ever elusive. […]

HUNTSVILLE RADIO: Should we expand Medicaid in Alabama?

API Senior Fellow J. Pepper Bryars and Fred Holland of Huntsville’s WTKI radio discussed Medicaid expansion in Alabama. Would it help? Would it hurt? Why do credible economists predict vastly different outcomes? Listen here:

J. Pepper Bryars: Alabama should wait and watch before considering Medicaid expansion

If only Alabama’s leaders had a magical Medicaid “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, so they could flip ahead and see the different outcomes we could expect by expanding the government insurance program that was originally designed for the poor and disabled. Would it end in a stronger economy, more jobs and a vibrant system of […]

MORE ON The Forum

MOBILE RADIO: How does ‘school choice’ = ‘tax choice’ in Alabama?

API Sr. Fellow Rachel Blackmon Bryars appeared on Mobile’s 1410 AM 94.5 FM LA Catholic Morning radio show to discuss how Alabamians can help low-income students who are stuck in low-performing schools by redirecting some of their income tax liability to a program that funds scholarships. It costs nothing but a few minutes and is […]

MOBILE RADIO: An update on Alabama’s pro-life bill

API Senior Fellow Rachel Blackmon Bryars provided an update on Alabama’s landmark abortion bill that is being considered in the state Senate today. Listen to the segment on 1410 AM/94.5 FM WNGL Archangel Catholic Radio:

MORE FROM John Hill, Ph.D.

The Coming Storm in ACA Implementation

Had the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the poorly-named Affordable Care Act in King v. Burwell, almost 500,000 Alabamians could have been spared the cost of the program’s individual mandate.  Premiums for a healthy 21-year-old would have dropped by almost seven hundred dollars a year, and by more than two thousand dollars annually for a […]

Governor is Right to Take Gambling off the Table

Supporters of expanding gambling in Alabama often hype the opportunities missed by our state to “keep Alabama gambling dollars in Alabama.”  Given the economic and social damage that would come with establishing a compact with the Poarch Creek Indians, our state government—especially under conservative leadership—should not be involved in this sordid business. The only reason […]

Better Late than Never: Time to Legalize Charter Schools in Alabama

Since 1992, public charter schools have offered families in other states a choice when it comes to which public school their children can attend. Charter schools are public schools that are publicly funded, tuition-free, and must enroll any student who wishes to attend as long as there is capacity for them. They are authorized through […]