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Updated: Bluegrass Institute releases report on Kentucky's most efficient school districts

Bang for BuckThe Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions has done a tremendous service to Kentucky's taxpayers and the educational community with the release of its new report, "Bang for the Buck: How Efficient Are Kentucky's Schools?"  Echoing BIPPS' groundbreaking 2006 report examining efficiency within individual schools, the new study examines how effectively school districts utilize taxpayer dollars to get positive results in student achievement.  Read it here.

The BIPPS report generates a Score-Spending Index (SSI) for each district comparing the total average dollars spent in that district per pupil to the district's performance on the ACT and other ACT-based assessments (like EXPLORE), currently our best and most accurate measure of whether schools are succeeding in preparing students for college and careers.  Districts are ranked based on their SSI, and charts and tables help control for outlier districts that have very low poverty rates, and for districts that appear to have a good SSI, but in fact have poor performance on the ACT relative to the state average (or who have high dropout rates, meaning a less diverse student body actually takes the ACT).

So for example, Beechwood Independent is the most efficient district in the report as measured by SSI, but Beechwood has only 12 percent of its students receiving free or reduced-price lunch.  Much more impressive is Harlan Independent, ranked number 2 on the list, with an SSI of 37.36, and with a 53% poverty rate and an average ACT of 20.9. 

But Harlan is less impressive still than LaRue County, for example.  With an average ACT of 19.4, LaRue has a 57% poverty rate and spends $9,164 per pupil, less than many districts that performed more poorly with a more affluent student population.  The BIPPS study listed LaRue County as a "Diamond in the Rough," along with Graves County, Mason County, and Eminence Independent.  These districts distinguished themselves as being especially efficient by boasting higher than average student achievement and graduation rates with less per pupil funding and higher poverty rates.

 Note that districts ranked high in this study don't necessarily have stellar student achievement (though all the high-ranking districts did better than the state ACT average).  LaRue County's average ACT, for example, was 19.3, lower than Bowling Green Independent's 20.2.  But Bowling Green Independent spent nearly $1,700 more per pupil, making the district significantly less efficient (LaRue was ranked 19th overall; Bowling Green was ranked 53rd).  Simply put, LaRue County taxpayers get more "bang for their buck."

Where does efficiency come from and why is this so important?

What explains these kinds of differences in efficiency?  Lots more research should be done in this area, but the Bluegrass Institute did interview superintendents from the "Diamonds in the Rough" districts to ask about their perceptions.  The superintendents emphasized that they put a high premium on establishing positive relationships with students and their families.  I'm sure they do, but this variable seems to be of questionable efficacy to me; lots of districts attempt to build positive relationships. 

What seemed far more important to me was that these superintendents promoted a "no excuses" mentality toward student learning that likely penetrates down to the classroom level.  In other words, despite being high-poverty districts, educators in these districts believe poverty doesn't have to be an obstacle to student learning.  I suspect this difference alone accounts for a significant role in the district's efficiency - and its eventual success.

Results from the "Bang for the Buck" study are critically important in this time of economic and government budgetary crisis.  The state and federal governments are essentially bankrupt.  Moreover, as the BIPPS report illustrates, education spending in Kentucky has nearly doubled in the last two decades while student achievement has only marginally improved.  Figuring out how to do more with each education dollar has never been more important.  State and local education and policy leaders need to take a hard look at the districts ranked highly in this study and identify leadership strategies that can be emulated.

The BIPPS report also emphasizes that getting good school efficiency data in Kentucky is nearly impossible thanks to some fundamental flaws in the MUNIS financial reporting system used by schools and districts.  Many of these flaws were discovered in the wake of BIPPS' 2006 "Bang for the Buck" report but the state has failed to correct them.  Transparency and accountability demand that policy makers and regulators find a way to remedy this situation so more meaningful school-to-school comparisons can be made in the future.

A look at GRREC districts

I was most interested to see how districts served by the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative faired in the study because the GRREC service region represents the school districts from where the majority of my WKU education administration students come.  What was most notable was how few GRREC districts were among the top ranked, with a few exceptions.  Meade County posted an SSI of 30.30, ranking 6th among 169 districts with high schools (districts with no high schools were ranked separately using EXPLORE data).

 LaRue County, noted above as a "Diamond in the Rough," ranked 19th overall.  Elizabethtown Independent, with an SSI of 17.8, was ranked 21; Hardin County was ranked 31 with a score of 14.48; and Webster County was ranked 32, with a score of 14.39.

The next tier of GRREC districts, in order of rank, were as follows:

  • 37 - Taylor
  • 40 - Edmonson
  • 42 - Adair
  • 44 - McLean
  • 46 - Allen
  • 47 - Barren
  • 52 - Warren
  • 53 - Bowling Green
  • 58 - Henderson
  • 64 - Daviess
  • 81 - Owensboro

Another run of GRREC districts had positive Score-Spending Indexes, but have a lower ACT performance than the state average:

  • 74 - Metcalfe
  • 79 - Clinton
  • 86 - Simpson
  • 90 - Trigg
  • 96 - Logan
  • 97 - Grayson
  • 101 - Breckinridge
  • 102 - Butler
  • 106 - Russell

The rest of the GRREC districts posted negative Score-Spending Indexes (by the study's measures they are neither particularly efficient, nor do they score above the state average in student achievement).  Moreover, their rank makes them among the least efficient districts in the state:

  • 115 - Glasgow
  • 123 - Hart
  • 126 - Russellville
  • 133 - Monroe
  • 137 - Cumberland
  • 141 - Campbellsville
  • 144 - Todd
  • 146 - Ohio
  • 148 - Cloverport
  • 156 - Union
  • 157 - Green
  • 165 - Caverna

Read the full report to see specifics on each district.

I am very familiar with some of these districts and I know good, important work is happening in many places.  Some of the lower-ranked districts in this study have made significant improvements in student achievement recently.  But this measure of how tax dollars are translating into results is extremely important and can shed new light, not just on what is working to improving student learning, but what is working at the lowest cost.  As some districts receiving millions of dollars in state and federal improvement money still languish in terms of outcomes, while others excel with similarly challenging demographics but for much lower investment, it's a question worth exploring further.

UPDATE: A reader noted that this study doesn't appear to take the percentage of a district's ESL population into account.  I'll verify this with the study's author, but I think this is a relevant observation.  ESL students are among the most needy in terms of resources required, and clearly this has an impact on a diverse district (like Bowling Green Independent, noted above, but also Warren County; if you consider this factor, both districts' rankings are actually very strong).

There are lots of variables that go into the connection between spending and student outcomes, many of which just can't be measured.  Like every ranking of schools, this one has its limitations. 

UPDATE, 9/20: Jim Frank, superintendent of the Green County Schools, contacted me to say there is a significant error in his district's data on the Kentucky Department of Education spreadsheet used to determine per-pupil spending in the Bang for the Buck report.   Because of the MUNIS problems described above, the Bluegrass Institute had to rely on the KDE "Receipts and Expenditures Audited" spreadsheet.  See the far-right column labeled "Total Expenses 1000-5200 (Does not include 028 On Behalf Expenditures)" on the worksheet "AFR Expenditures Per Pupil."

Mr. Frank indicated that the spreadsheet includes a $4.4 million audit entry on the district's debt service that was discovered after their audit but never corrected on this report.  This would potentially have a significant impact on Green County's ranking in the Bang for the Buck report.

I'll be inquiring to find out if KDE can correct this error, and whether there might be similar errors throughout the spreadsheet.

The Green County situation further reveals the inadequacy of school accounting procedures , and reinforces the importance of the Bang for the Buck study itself.  District efficiency is important but some of the most basic data sources for measuring and comparing district efficiency may be fundamentally flawed.  Kentucky taxpayers and educators deserve better.

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