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So does spending more per student improve outcomes in Idaho? In a word, no.
I have a graduate-level background in statistics. I was asked by a local conservative think tank to see whether increased spending on secondary education on Idaho has a meaningful effect on student outcomes. Idaho periodically administers its own ISAT achievement tests to elementary and secondary students. The 10th grade science test from 2014 was the latest set of results that I could obtain with a broad sampling of students with the longest exposure to public schooling. Public schools in Idaho also submit their annual budgetary information on a standardized set of accounts, 2013 was the latest available. I extracted the operating portion of districts’ budgets (educational and overhead expenses) and scaled that by the average daily attendance (ADA) in each district, showing how much was being spent per student.
Using a statistical regression test, there is no significant positive effect of increasing spending on testing outcome, across a 3x range of expenditures. The cash might as well be burnt for all the good it’s doing, based on objective testing.
Some details: The ISAT yields one of four results: Below Basic (fail), Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. The chart above shows the total of all results better than fail, which should be a minimum expectation of performance by the educational system. However, I repeated the test using both the Proficient+Advanced total, and Advanced alone, and there were no positive effects on these higher level outcomes either.
I used a total of 99 school districts’ data. While Idaho has a strong charter school movement, that data was omitted to avoid an ‘apples and oranges’ comparison because they did not administer the same test. I also omitted a number of very small districts where overhead per student might negatively bias the outcome, and a few districts that are entirely on Native American reservations. I used only operating spending, dropping categories such as capital expenditures, bond repayment or food programs that are inconsistent across districts or have no immediate effect on students.
The highest spending district in Idaho was Blaine County, home of the blue state exclaves Sun Valley, Hailey, and Ketchum. Blaine spent $18,333 in operating expenses per student. The lowest spender was rural agricultural Jefferson County, at $5,189 per student. Jefferson’s pass rate on the 10th grade test was 85.4%. Spending 3.5 times as much, Blaine had a 87.5% pass rate in its affluent district. The most effective district in Idaho, in terms of pass rate per dollar spent, was the small agricultural community of Fruitland, which has an over 20% Hispanic population.
There may be ways to improve educational outcomes, but at least in Idaho, throwing money at the problem is not one of them.