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May 2 2018

D.C. Public School System Spends Twice National Average Per Student--And the Results Are Abysmal

by Charlotte Hays

A never-fail talking point for any politician is that we should spend more money on education.

But would that actually improve education?

We want to ensure that every young person has an education to equip her for life, but what is the connection between expenditures and results?

An excellent article by Heritage Foundation education specialist Lindsey Burke examines expenditures and results in the D.C. public school system. She has found a serious disconnect between the two.  

Burke writes that the level of spending in the Washington, D.C. public schools per student is roughly double the national average. D.C. is spending somewhere between $27,000 and $29,000 per child per year. This would mean that the cost to put a child through the D.C. public school system, indergarten through high school graduation, is about $350,000.

So what are the results? Burke writes:

One could be forgiven for expecting good educational outcomes for such breathtaking sums. Yet educational outcomes in the District of Columbia are one of the clearest examples of the disconnect between spending and academic achievement.

Although the District has made considerable progress on the national assessment—often referred to as “the nation’s report card”—over the past two decades, the city’s scores for eighth-graders still fall short of the national average by nearly 20 points—approximately two grade levels of learning.

In eighth-grade math, for example, D.C. students scored 16 points below the national average. In reading, D.C. students were 19 points behind their peers across the country.

Proficiency levels in reading and math also leave much to be desired. Among fourth-graders, 32 percent scored proficient or better in math, and 29 percent scored proficient in reading. Just 20 percent of eighth-graders tested proficient or better in reading, and just 21 percent in math.

That’s right: Just two out of 10 eighth-graders in D.C. public schools can read or do math proficiently.

Education experts for a while bragged about a suposed decline in the number of suspensions in D.C. public schools, until it became clear that this supposed decline was a reporting matter, not a reduction in disciplinary problems.

There is some good news, however.

Charter schools score only about eight points higher in eighth grade math, but they have achieved this result at considerably less expense.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to low-income families, has also shown far better results. Burke writes:

Beyond other reasons to applaud the school-choice option, such as happier parents and safer students, an experimental evaluation commissioned by the Department of Education found that students who used a scholarship graduated at a rate 21 percentage points higher than their peers who were awarded a voucher but did not use it.

D.C. would be well-served by expanding access to the Opportunity Scholarship Program and by formula-funding the program so that parents can rely on it to be there in the future.

Expanding school choice in D.C. will enhance education at all grade levels because parents will be able to match their children with educational options that are the right fit. Instead of having limited options based largely on where they live, parents empowered by choice can find the school that best fits the academic and social needs of their children.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress scores show that D.C. children remain in dire need of access to better education options. Expanding school choice can make that a reality.

On a related education issue, teacher salaries, I want to recommend you read this City Journal article ("No, Teachers Are Not Underpaid")  by Andrew Biggs.

There are lots of school teachers in my family and I am on their side: I believe teaching is one of the most important professions there is. But Biggs points out some of the misconceptions that underlie the notion that most are underpaid.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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