PA SAT Scores Point to Futility of Higher Spending

Member Group : Allegheny Institute

Once again reality intrudes on the fantasy world of the politicians, educrats, teachers’ unions, school board members, and many parents who have swallowed hook, line and sinker the narrative that ever greater spending will improve educational results. Just released 2010 SAT scores for Pennsylvania high schoolers can only be described as appallingly inadequate given the increases in state and local taxes over the past decade.

Here’s the picture. In 1998, state SAT test takers scored 497 on reading and 495 on math. In 2010, students posted 492 on reading and 501 on math—basically a one percent drop in reading and a one percent rise in math. Meanwhile, over the period, spending at the state’s public schools climbed 76 percent as enrollment remained virtually unchanged. Thus, per pupil expenditures rose the same 76 percent. The Consumer Price Index rose just over 30 percent during the period making the inflation adjusted rise in education spending an astonishing 45 percent.

In short, a near 50 percent jump in spending over the last decade or so has produced essentially no improvement in the academic achievement of Pennsylvania’s public school graduates.

Now we can look forward to frantic spinning by the education establishment or politicians who never tire of arguing that not only is the recent skyrocketing rise in spending justified but even greater increases will be necessary to deliver Pennsylvania students the education they need and deserve. But no amount of excuse making and distortion of the facts can hide the reality of what is happening.

One of the frequently used diversionary tactics is to crow about advances made in the assessment test results of 3rd graders or 8th graders. And even if those claims might be correct, they are largely irrelevant as long as juniors and seniors continue to show no improvement on state assessment tests or the SAT. Here is a way to evaluate this situation. We are not spending enormous sums to educate children to be good 4th grade or 9th grade students. If they are not accomplished seniors and graduates, we have failed them.

It is comparable to building an automobile. The chassis may be strong and the body looks great, but if the engine and drive train are sloppily designed and built and the car cannot reliably get people from point A to point B, the final product will be a great disappointment. That is not to say that a strong chassis is unimportant. But that cannot be our sole focus.

There can be little doubt that for far too many students Pennsylvania’s education system has taken its eyes off the objective: preparing young people for life after 12th grade. No doubt teaching adolescents or keeping them focused can be more difficult than instructing seven year olds. But that cannot be an excuse for not doing a much better job, especially in light of the enormous sums of money spent in the schools.

Maybe a rethinking of education is required. Are there too many distractions for high schoolers? Is too much time spent on non-educational activities? Are the teachers sufficiently qualified to teach the more sophisticated material these students need to be learning?

Alternatively, does the approach of the entire education system need to be revamped? If the recent experience of Pennsylvania’s inability to boost the academic performance of graduates is any indication, it is clear that the same old tired rhetoric and ever more spending won’t answer and needs to replaced with some real innovation. Innovation that is beyond the limited imagination of the education establishment.

Can we once and for all commit to doing what is right for students and taxpayers? It is time to adopt a publicly funded voucher system that will allow parents to choose schools that best meet the needs and desires of the students. Trying to force everyone into the cookie cutter model now being used in public education is foolhardiness—pure and simple.

This issue is far too important for politicians to continue putting their heads in the sand and pretending it will somehow get better on its own. Other than providing for public safety and the justice system, the Commonwealth has no more important constitutional requirement than creating an effective education system. That education system need not and should not be held captive by unions, union beholden elected officials, employees in the Department of Education and professors in schools of education. Their primary interest is self-interest, not education of Pennsylvania’s children. The children who are required by law to be in school are simply pawns in their endless war against freedom of choice in education.

Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President

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