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 API Blog

Legislative Session: Week 5 Review

It was a slower week, so before you kick off your weekend, check out what happened in Montgomery during week five of the 2018 legislative session! By the way, if you want to receive daily news hits from across the state and nation straight to your inbox each morning, click here to subscribe to API’s Daily […]

Using our tax breaks and bonuses for things that matter

“Crumbs”. That’s how House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi characterized the thousand-dollar bonuses and wage increases that companies are offering employees in the wake of federal tax reform. This description has, appropriately, come under attack. Walmart, Alabama’s largest employer, is spending around $400 million on employee bonuses. In fact, according to Americans for Tax Reform, over […]

Calling All Candidates: Let’s Talk Education

You spoke, Alabama. We asked, what issues are important to you and what questions would you ask of your candidates to answer?  Since last week was National School Choice Week, let’s explore questions on promoting education and supporting Alabama’s school children. And it probably won’t come as much of a surprise—Alabamians are very vocal on these […]

MORE ON Education

Calling All Candidates: Let’s Talk Education

You spoke, Alabama. We asked, what issues are important to you and what questions would you ask of your candidates to answer?  Since last week was National School Choice Week, let’s explore questions on promoting education and supporting Alabama’s school children. And it probably won’t come as much of a surprise—Alabamians are very vocal on these […]

Superintendent Sentance Deserves a Fair Shot

Though his career at Alabama began with a mediocre 6-6 record and, perhaps more notably to fans, a loss to Auburn, football coach Nick Saban was not fired after his first year—and good thing he wasn’t. Today, Saban is considered by many to be perhaps the greatest college football coach of all time. We give […]

Our Evaluation of Michael Sentance

The Alabama State Board of Education will meet tomorrow in Montgomery for a special meeting abruptly called last week. The stated purpose is to evaluate Superintendent Michael Sentance. The rumored purpose is to fire him. We trust that the latter is just that—a rumor—as there is absolutely no justification for firing Mr. Sentance. Indeed, allow […]

MORE ON Family

Using our tax breaks and bonuses for things that matter

“Crumbs”. That’s how House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi characterized the thousand-dollar bonuses and wage increases that companies are offering employees in the wake of federal tax reform. This description has, appropriately, come under attack. Walmart, Alabama’s largest employer, is spending around $400 million on employee bonuses. In fact, according to Americans for Tax Reform, over […]

Pro-Life Values Should Go Beyond the Ballot Box

By Brooke Bacak Voters in Alabama have great concern for the unborn. After Tuesday’s special election, many feel anguish over the loss of a reliably pro-life Senate seat, which could affect federal judicial appointments over the next several years. Without judges who respect the right of states to regulate abortion, pro-life voters feel especially helpless […]

Is the American dream alive and well in Alabama?

A recent Pew Research study found that over 80% of U.S. citizens believe they’ve achieved the American dream, or at least that they’re on the way to doing so. Only 17% of those surveyed said the American dream is “out of reach” for their family. But what about Alabamians? This high level of satisfaction seems […]

MORE ON Fiscal Policy

Tax Incentives: Not Always the Answer for Alabama’s Economic Struggles

Last month, the state rejoiced with news that Alabama would be the home of a new Toyota-Mazda plant. The plant is expected to bring over 4,000 jobs and billions of dollars in net revenue to the state. With the execution of this deal, known as Project New World, state and local governments will give the two companies […]

API Joins 36 Conservative Groups and Activists: Congress Must Stop New Obamacare Taxes

Lawmakers must act to prevent Obamacare taxes from going into effect next year, 36 conservative groups and activists wrote in a letter addressed to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Absent Congressional action, the Obamacare health insurance tax and medical device tax will both go into effect in 2018. […]

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 […]