Thursday, September 13, 2007


by Christina Settimi Forbes July 5, 2007

More spending doesn’t necessarily buy you better schools. With property taxes rising across the country, we took a look at per-pupil spending in public schools and weighed it against student performance--college entrance exam scores (SAT or ACT, depending on which is more common in the state), exam participation rates and graduation rates.

Winners in this rating system are counties whose schools deliver high performance at low cost. The losers spend a lot of money and have little to show for it.

Marin County, Calif., provides the best bang for the buck. In 2004 Marin spent an average of $9,356 ($6,579 adjusted for the cost of living relative to other metro areas in the U.S.) per pupil, among the lowest education expenditures in the country. But in return Marin delivered results above the national average: 96.8% of its seniors graduated, and 60.4% of them took the SAT college entrance exam and scored a mean 1133 (out of 1600). The others in the top five are Collin, Texas; Hamilton, Ind.; Norfolk, Mass.; and Montgomery, Md.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Alexandria City, Va., which sits just six miles outside of our nation’s capital, spent $13,730 ($11,404 adjusted) per pupil, but its high schools registered only a 73% graduation rate, with 65.0% of the seniors participating in the SAT for a mean score of 963. According to John Porter, assistant superintendent, Administrative Services and Public Relations for the Alexandria City Public Schools, their graduation rate is reflective of a large number of foreign-born students who may take longer than the traditional four years to graduate. He also noted that their performance measures are rising, along with their expenditures. Per-pupil spending in Alexandria City is now over $18,000. Others on the bottom of the list include Glynn, Ga.; Washington, D.C.; Ulster, N.Y.; and Beaufort, S.C.

Using research provided by the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax research group based in Washington, D.C., Forbes began with a list of the 775 counties in the country with populations greater than 65,000 that had the highest average property taxes. From this list we isolated the 97 counties where more than 50% of per-pupil spending contributions comes from property taxes. (Click Here For Full Rankings)

Since it costs more to educate a student in New York than Alabama, we adjusted expenditures for each metropolitan area based on’s national cost of living average. We then chose to compare spending to the only performance measures that can be used to compare students equally across the country. With a nod toward recognizing the importance of education, performance was weighted twice against cost. Performance and cost numbers are county averages; individual school districts within a county can vary greatly.

Just getting the raw data is no small task; in many counties you have to call dozens of high schools one at a time to find out how many kids drop out, how many take the SATs and how they do on the exams. Since no standard method to calculate a graduation rate is enforced nationally, and the college entrance exam boards will only release data below a state level directly to the schools, not the public, we were left to trust county, district and school officials to honestly and accurately report their results.

During this process it was interesting to hear about the amount of effort and the number of creative ways that schools take to report the best possible results. For instance, high school guidance counselors can encourage poor-performing students to take the ACT exam over the SAT exam, so that their SAT score remains high. Graduation rates can be calculated based on the number of seniors still enrolled in school on the date of graduation, compared with looking at a cohort that began freshman year four years earlier or even looking at the number of seniors enrolled at the beginning of the year. If only as much effort went into improving performance as it did into fixing performance measures.

The caveats to our methodology notwithstanding, our study shows that there are big differences in the quality of education relative to spending among counties and is further proof that money is not the only--or perhaps even the most important--factor when it comes to the quality of education.

In Pictures: Best And Worst School Districts For The Buck

Charts and Graphs for Visual Learners: Click Here For Full Rankings

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