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Part I: Spending and student achievement linked, but that's not the whole story

By DAVE SOLOMON
State House Bureau

March 17. 2018 8:50PM
Students have fun drumming in a music class at Josiah Bartlett Elementary School in Bartlett. (Kurt Erickson)



CONCORD - An analysis by the state Department of Education shows that school districts spending the most money per pupil are getting the best results on standardized tests, although there are some exceptions that stand out - low cost-per-pupil schools that do well, and high-cost schools without the test scores to match.

The Department of Education recently released cost-per-pupil expenditures for all of the state's school districts, something it does every year.

But the data has never been linked to the academic performance of the districts as measured by standardized test results, until now.

At the request of the New Hampshire Sunday News, the department calculated average outcomes for the schools in each district, based on the last round of Smarter Balanced tests in the elementary and middle schools, and the SAT administered to all 11th-graders.

"What the data will tell you is that the schools that are spending more money are getting a higher average outcome," said state Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut. "But be careful of correlation versus causation."

Edelblut agrees that the numbers show a direct correlation between dollars spent and better academic outcomes, but he's reluctant to say there is a direct cause-and-effect.

"It's not as simple as that. You have to understand some of the things that are happening on the margins," he says.

And on the margins are poorly funded school districts that do better than average, and well-funded school districts with performance that falls below most of their peers.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut on a recent visit to the Hinsdale Elementary School. (Courtesy)

Man bites dog

The fact that Moultonborough, with a per-pupil investment of $27,161 at the elementary/middle school level, also has some of the highest average test scores is "dog bites man" in traditional newspaper terms. But the fact that Auburn, which spends only $12,168 per pupil gets similar results is "man bites dog."

"Why is it that some districts can spend a lot of money and their results are down here, whereas another district is spending a lot less, and they are doing really well? We have to find those and ask, 'What are you doing?' and let's do more of that," says Edelblut.

Then there are taxpayers who will look at a district like Stratford, with a high cost per pupil of $25,646, and test results that fall below many of the districts making a similar investment.

Part of the answer could be that 75 percent of the students in the tiny Coos County town along the Connecticut River are eligible for free and reduced-cost lunch.

"You have to factor that into it," says Edelblut. "You may have a district where the demographics are affecting the outcomes. Take math as an example. My statewide average is 44 percent proficient, but among the free and reduced lunch population, only 21 percent are proficient. In the population with individualized education programs (IEP), it's 8 percent."

Despite the challenges of lower per-pupil spending, districts like Chester, New Boston and Pelham get comparably good outcomes.

"I don't know the secret sauce," said Edelblut. "If I did, I'd go back into business."

Strong statewide

On a statewide basis, New Hampshire achieves educational outcomes that consistently place the state among the top 10 nationally. New Hampshire was third among 50 states in the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation's Report Card.

But at the local level, the property-rich communities continue to have a substantial advantage despite Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s that require the state to fund an adequate education for all of its children.

According to Gov. Chris Sununu, the problem isn't a lack of money.

"K-12 spending in the United States has increased more than 375 percent since 1970, while test scores have remained nearly flat. Increasing educational outcomes are not dependent on increasing spending," said his spokesman Ben Vihstadt.

"Gov. Sununu believes that investing in kids, not institutions, will produce positive results for New Hampshire students, which is why he supports SB 193, giving families more freedom in their children's education," he said, referring to the school choice bill backed by Sununu and Edelblut.

Targeted aid

Vihstadt said Sununu would support a constitutional amendment to allow targeted aid, which would enable the state to direct most of its education grants to the school districts in need, and much less to the property-rich districts.

Former Democratic Gov. John Lynch pressed unsuccessfully for such an amendment during much of his tenure.

The question of how to equalize educational opportunity across the state has dogged lawmakers since the Claremont court rulings of the 1990s, and subsequent lawsuits. Amid rumblings among some property-poor towns of yet another lawsuit, a special legislative committee has been meeting since June of last year.

The much-anticipated report of a committee that's studying education funding and the cost of an adequate education is due by Nov. 1. The committee is composed of seven state representatives and one state senator.

The Department of Education has formed its own committee, headed by Director of School Finance Caitlin Davis, to study the problem and advise the legislative panel.

dsolomon@unionleader.com

2016-2017 SAT and Smart-Balanced Scores by District


INSTRUCTIONS - The report opens on page 1, S-B Math, to navigate to the other test results, hover over the chart and a control bar appears at the bottom. Select districts using the checkboxes to compare within a region or communities of interest. The vertical axis is a district's % of students receiving free and reduced meals. The horizontal axis is what a district spent per pupil. The size of the bubble is average score relative to other districts. Hover over a bubble for district information. The table below the chart provides additional details. Best viewed in Chrome.

Charter schools and public academies are excluded from these reports as Cost-Per-Pupil (CPP) data is not available for them. All results are based on 2016-2017 SAT Scaled Scores or 2016-2017 Smarter-Balanced Scaled Scores. No other tests were included. % of Free and Reduced (%FandR) meals in a district is based on Oct. 1st enrollment for grades K-12 and includes directly certified students. All students receiving free meals, reduced meals as well as free milk are included.

DATA: SAT Scores | Smarter-Balanced Scores | Click here for a fuller view of the report above in a window of its own.


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