Skip to main content
Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 11, 2010 7 years ago

My view: More money doesn't boost scores

by: Rod Thomson

A lot of Sarasota County voters who go to the polls Tuesday may vote in favor of the extending the school tax for the wrong reason.

Their thinking is typified by a March 3 guest column that Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight wrote for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Knight makes the cardinal mistake that many casual observers of the schools make — he equates spending more money on education with improving education.

It seems to make sense at first blush, and, of course, everyone wants a better education system.

The problem is that it is not true; that other factors involved in a child’s education — home life, crime and drug level in the neighborhood, cultural expectations — override more money being spent in the system.

In Knight’s editorial, he argues that supporting the school-tax referendum is a vote for a safer community, the logic being the more education a person has the less likely that person is to be a criminal.

It’s a wrong equation. There is no solid body of evidence that shows that spending more money alone improves education. Perhaps spending money on true foundation-level reform would improve education.

But this referendum does not do that.

Almost all of the $43 million the tax will take from taxpayers will go for higher school-employee salaries and bonuses. Common sense dictates that paying more money to administrators, janitors, bus drivers, secretaries and so on will not affect student outcome, but millions of dollars will go into just that.

Will paying teachers more money improve education, or will it attract teachers mostly interested in more money?

Proponents of the school tax bring up the common lament of the education establishment — how low Florida ranks in education spending compared to other states.

The state is regularly in the bottom 10 states in per-pupil spending and in spending per capita. (The last is particularly obnoxious to use because we have so many retirees, our student population is a smaller percentage than most states and so per-capita spending should be lower. Anyone quoting that stat is spinning you.)

At our last debate, Superintendent Lori White mentioned the district’s SAT and ACT scores are 19% above the national average.

I don’t get it. If we are so severely underfunding education, how are the nationalized test scores so far above average?

Indeed, in a study by Heritage Foundation researchers using a mountain of public statistics, no correlation was found between more spending and better student results.

Among the results of the study, average per-pupil expenditures in the United States have more than doubled since 1970, rising from $4,060 in 1970 to $9,266 in 2004, in inflation-adjusted 2006 dollars.

But during that same time, national NAEP reading scores at all levels remained flat, even declining at the higher grades. Massive amounts of more money did not improve education.

The study concludes that while the result did not prove that resources are not a factor, “it does suggest that simply increasing spending is unlikely to improve educational performance.”

Let’s look at it another way, gazing within the Sarasota County School District.

The percent of fourth-grade students at Emma E. Booker Elementary scoring three or above in reading and writing on the 2009 FCATs was 56% for each. Those scoring three or above at Gulf Gate Elementary was 84% and 81%. The percent at Fruitville Elementary was 82% and 86%.

The same tests in eighth grade show Booker Middle School at 38% and 47% while McIntosh Middle School was 66% and 73% and Sarasota Middle School was 77% and 85%.

The same tests in 10th grade show Booker High School at 31% and 61% while Sarasota High School was 35% and 68% and Riverview High School was 53% and 79%.

You will say that is not fair, those are different student bodies. Exactly. At every grade level, schools with a lower socio-economic demographic of students do worse than schools with an higher demographic.

Yet all these schools are within the same district with the one-mill tax and essentially have the same spending per student.

The conclusion is inescapable. Demographics play the dominant role in education outcome, not money.

Remember, the teachers at the Booker schools are working under the same contract as those at the other schools.

Sheriff Knight then went on to write this whopper: “I trust our School Board members to be good stewards of the money that is given to them … ”

Why? I am just dying to know on what he would base that.

Keeping all of the money that came in from the extra tax even when it more than doubled from the $29 million the board said it needed to the more than $60 million during the boom? That kind of good stewardship?

Giving employees longevity bonuses up to nearly $15,000 at Christmas time for no other reason than they remained employed another year? That kind of good stewardship?

Giving free health-care coverage to school district employees, almost unheard of nowadays. That kind of good stewardship?

Paying teachers strictly based on education level and years worked in the district, with no respect to how effective they are? That kind of good stewardship?

Perhaps the problem is that the sheriff has been getting his information from the daily newspaper, which has slept through most of this debate — not reporting the above facts or the union funding of tax proponents.

In many respects, Knight simply reflects the views of many people who will pull the lever for yes next Tuesday, based on little information, but the vague and fallacious idea that more money equals better education.

It is an expensive mistake.

Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review and can be reached at [email protected].

To download a chart explaining the "link" between education spending and student performance, click here.

Related Stories