Bang for the Buck 2012
Kentucky, like most states, currently spends a large portion of each tax dollar on education. In fact, nearly 60 percent of the Bluegrass State’s General Fund supports education in the state’s public schools and colleges.
Furthermore, there has been a dramatic increase in the commonwealth’s funding for education since the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 was enacted. In inflation-adjusted dollars, real spending on public education in Kentucky nearly doubled between 1989 and 2010.
However, more spending by itself does not create an efficient education system – just a more expensive one.
Neither do rising test scores and other measures of educational progress by themselves necessarily signal an efficient education system.
It is the ratio of educational performance per dollar expended that determines whether Kentucky is operating an efficient system – a system that provides students, parents and taxpayers good “Bang for the Buck.” In this report, we examine the bang for the buck ratio to see if Kentucky’s education system is really complying with the requirements of the Kentucky Constitution.
The Bluegrass Institute’s first report on Kentucky education’s “Bang for the Buck” was released in 2006. It was the first known publicly released attempt to determine which schools in Kentucky were providing the best performance for each dollar expended. Six years later, we update the original report with current information.
However, we ran into a major obstacle when we examined the credibility of publicly available school level funding data for 2011. The credibility of the available data came into sharp question about six months after our initial “Bang for the Buck” report was released in 2006. At that time, the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability (OEA) issued a report identifying serious problems with Kentucky’s MUNIS education finance system, which generates funding data for schools. Improvements to the MUNIS system were promised by the Kentucky Department of Education.
Unfortunately, in the process of updating “Bang for the Buck” we learned that efforts during the past six years to repair problems with the MUNIS system have failed to provide us with a reliable way to examine bang for the buck performance in individual schools.
Thanks to MUNIS’ continuing deficiencies six years after the OEA report’s release – even after we attempted contacted local school systems to correct the most obvious problems – we still could not develop enough confidence in 2011 school level spending data to be willing to report results based on those figures.
Thus, while our previous report focused on school-level performance, we turn in this release to a higher level – school districts – but one that offers more credible funding information than what is available for individual schools. . Unfortunately, the consequences of a flawed MUNIS accounting system are more significant now than ever before.
With the state’s economy in considerable difficulty, there simply are no more tax dollars to throw at the education problem. To improve education, we need to know what is working most efficiently in individual schools so those efficient programs can be replicated elsewhere. Without a MUNIS system tuned to provide such information, Kentucky’s ability to improve its schools is seriously hampered.
Can an efficiency analysis really provide useful clues about educational approaches that work better? Looking at the results from our district level “bang for the buck” analysis, we think the answer is “Yes.”
We found four districts in our new analysis that we consider to be “Diamonds in the Rough”: Graves County, Eminence Independent, LaRue County and Mason County. These districts have student school lunch eligibility rates equal to or greater than the state average yet still manage to generate notably above average test scores despite below average per-pupil funding. All four districts also have high school graduation rates higher than the state average.
How did these districts accomplish this efficient operation? Can we replicate their success elsewhere? Those are the sorts of questions educators should be asking themselves. However, getting really good answers requires better data. We need a refined MUNIS system that allows us to accurately and consistently track program costs across schools and districts – separate and specific programs for teacher professional development, for example – so we can determine which programs really provide the most effective and efficient performance for students.
We should note that our “Diamond in the Rough” districts don’t get the top academic scores on important tests from the ACT, Inc. Neither do they get the very lowest funding. Normally, all four would probably be overlooked. It is their efficiency – the combination of good bang for each buck despite considerable poverty rates – that makes these districts stand out.
It is essential for the Kentucky Department of Education to fix the MUNIS education finance system so we can drill down much deeper into our school systems and see what specific education programs in schools work best for our dollars. With a fully functional and useful MUNIS system, we could provide educators with a powerful tool to do a much better job of delivering a bigger – much bigger – bang for the buck for our children.