How productive is your district?

Since the onset of the great recession, most states have been implementing higher academic standards while simultaneously cutting funding for their public schools. Basically, school districts across the country have been asked to do more with less. As I wrote in Cutting to the Bone there is simply no fat left to cut to enable school boards to balance their budgets. Many would have to make cuts in areas that would directly impact student achievement. Hence, the goal is no longer to find cuts that avoid negative impacts on students, it is to find cuts that have the least negative impact, even if they certainly benefited some students.

While school funding is unlikely to return to pre-recession levels anytime soon school boards continue to fight for the revenues they need to ensure all students are prepared for success following high school. In the mean time, boards are doing the best they can with the resources available to them. However, the Center for American Progress (CAP) argues in a recent report some districts are getting a better return on investment of their education dollars than similar districts. This means there are some districts that are spending less and are obtaining better results in terms of student outcomes than other districts within their state that serve similar students.

Accurately calculating the return on investment of school districts is notoriously complex due to such issues as differing accounting practices between districts and districts providing different services. As such the data is not always available to make a true apples to apples comparison of what districts spend on providing similar services. The report itself even points out the limitations of comparing the productivity of school districts. However, such limitations shouldn’t prevent districts from finding out for themselves how their productivity compares to other districts in their state. CAP’s new interactive web tool allows districts to do just that. Such comparisons may not be perfect but they provide a starting point to determine how effectively districts are spending the dwindling funds they have. Districts can use these comparisons to find out how more productive districts are using their dollars and determine if such practices would benefit their district.

Access to such information-as imperfect as it is– provides school boards an additional resource on how to they can best utilize their limited funds to improve student outcomes.—Jim Hull

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