By Ron Knecht and Geoffrey Lawrence
Recently, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual “Kids Count Data Book” ranked Nevada 49th among the states in K-12 education.
We always check the actual numbers behind rankings like this. But the so-called “Data Book” provides almost no information about its data sources or how its rankings are calculated.
It’s clear, however, the ranking isn’t based on objective measures of educational outcomes. It also considers demographic variables like race.
There’s some correlation between such secondary factors and objective education performance measures. But including them in addition to student achievement essentially double counts their significance in education rankings.
Worse, the demagoguery on public education obscures the fundamental point: People’s lives and living standards have improved dramatically over the past 200 years precisely because folks continually learned to produce more with less in almost every industry – except government, education and health care.
For example, today it takes about three days’ average wages to buy a mattress and box spring, while that purchase cost 20 days’ wages 85 years ago. And despite costing only 15 percent as much, today’s Simba mattress and other premium brands like that are more comfortable than ever!
Why no such improvement in education? Shouldn’t improvements in the educational attainment of teachers, technology, online learning platforms and various innovations lead to gains in educational efficiency? Instead, K-12 education continually gets more expensive relative to our incomes while delivering questionable quality.
Educators should be embarrassed about the system’s inability to keep up with the rest of the economy. Yet, teacher unions and other beneficiaries of public spending on education have somehow deluded the public into believing more and more money for them is always better for education.
For our children’s future, we must focus on educational efficiency.
We can estimate efficiency using the federal Department of Education’s (DOE) statistics on state spending and performance.
State spending on education varies widely by region, with northeastern states spending far more than everyone else. Among mountain west states, Nevada ranks near the middle. Wyoming’s oil revenues drive high spending there, and Colorado, Montana and New Mexico all spend slightly more than Nevada. Arizona spends slightly less, and Idaho and Utah much less.
DOE also administers a standardized test in every state on a random basis. It can be used to gauge student achievement in math and reading. The only mountain west state with lower performance than Nevada is New Mexico. However, California routinely scores worse than Nevada despite substantially higher spending there.
Dividing per-pupil spending by the combined score of the eighth-grade math and reading tests in each state tells how much each state spends per achievement point. That determines who has the most efficient school system.
Doing so reveals Nevada again to be near the median among mountain west states. We spend slightly more than Arizona to achieve an identical score and with similar demographics.
Idaho and Utah lead the way nationally, achieving high scores at very low cost. But they also have less than half the concentration of minority students of Nevada and Arizona and thus bear fewer costs of teaching children to overcome language barriers.
So Arizona and Nevada are leaders in educational efficiency, although neither state has been really effective at reducing costs.
By contrast, Florida has reduced the cost of educating each student by more than $2,200 since 2008 while test scores and graduation rates have continued to improve. This means Florida taxpayers kept more than $5 billion in their pockets in 2013 versus 2008 spending levels while getting better education for their children. Student demographics in Florida are similar to Nevada, but Florida was among the first states to embrace fundamental school reform, including parental choice.
North Carolina, where Geoff grew up, also stands out as a consistently high performer despite taking less out of taxpayer pockets than Nevada does.
For mattresses, fine dining, deodorant and nearly every other aspect of life, the Western tradition has been to continually do more with less so that we can all lead richer and fuller lives. Such progress rightly should be the focus in education too, which means we should strive for efficiency of output and not just feel-good programs.
So, Nevada K-12 education isn’t so bad. But there are other states we can learn from.
Ron Knecht is Nevada State Controller. Geoffrey Lawrence is Assistant Controller.