Does Spending More on K12 Produce Better Results?

Alaska spends tons of money on K12 education and gets little return on its investment, compared to other states like Florida and Massachusetts. What is Alaska doing wrong? Will spending more get better student achievement? Not if this table is any indication.

by: Bob Griffin

In the below table states are rank ordered by per capita spending on K-12 education, normalized for the difference in cost of living in each state using the cost of living tables published by the Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER). The third column in the table shows how much each state spends compared to the national average, after cost of living normalization.

In the field of the chart, color coded boxes show the rank ordered results of the US Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing in 4th and 8th grade reading and math.  Students are further categorized by whether or not they qualify for free or reduced lunch so that there’s an apples-to-apples comparison between students of similar economic status.  Lower income students qualify for free or reduced lunch and wealthier students do not qualify.  The dark green boxes highlight those states that score in the top 10 out of 50 states in each category.  Light green boxes indicate a top-half score rank between 11-25 states.  Light red (pink) squares are in the bottom-half (26 to 40) and dark red squares indicate scores in the bottom 10 states.

Bobs NAEP--cost chart jan 31 2017For a larger view of the chart click here.

If spending alone made a significant difference in student outcomes, one would expect the top half of this table ( the states that spend the most) to have mostly green boxes and the bottom half (states that spend the least) to have mostly red boxes.  As one can see from the table– there is very little correlation between spending and outcomes since red and green squares are fairly evenly distributed throughout the range of the table.

Some observations can be gathered immediately from this table:

The state with the very best scores–Massachusetts is ranked 36th in per capita K-12 spending–in a virtual tie with Mississippi (37th) — the state with the worst scores in the nation.  Both states were slightly below average in their K-12 spending, at 91% of the US average, after the cost of living adjustment.

Alaska is in a close race with New Mexico for the least efficient K-12 system.  Alaska was number two in the per capita spending on K-12.  Alaska Spent 146% of the national average, even after taking into account the high cost of living in Alaska.  And still Alaska scored 47th overall in achievement. New Mexico was ranked 4th in K-12 spending at 119% of the national average and ranked 48th in overall results.

Florida is one of the most efficient states for spending vs outcomes.  With K-12 spending  only  79% of the national average, Florida is in the top half in seven out of the eight categories in outcomes and in the top 5 in both economic  categories in 4th grade reading.  Even though Alaska spent 84% more than Florida, Florida low-income 4th graders were #1 in NAEP reading scores while Alaska low-income 4th graders were dead last– with scores equivalent to 2.2 school years below the achievement level of the same kids in Florida.


Bottom line: More spending on K12 does not necessarily produce better student achievement.  Matter of fact, more funding  may lead to wasteful spending on programs that do not help students achieve.