We’re often told that to get better educational outcomes, we just need to spend more money. If we opened up the pocketbooks a little more, we’d see things turn around.
Unfortunately, throwing more money at the problem won’t solve anything. Until recently, the United States increased spending on education virtually every year on a per-student basis. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess noted in the introduction to a Stretching the School Dollar, a collection of essays on education reform he edited, “Per-pupil spending today is roughly double (in inflation-adjusted terms) what it was in 1983.” Test scores, however, have stagnated.
You can see this dynamic at work in individual states. Consider Wyoming. Wyoming has the sixth-highest per-pupil spending rate on education of any state at $13,840. When cost of living is taken into account, Wyoming actually ranks first. We can all agree that Wyoming is spending a lot of money on education.
Yet Wyoming’s educational outcomes are, at best, average. They rank 27th in graduation rate, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). ACT Inc., which administers the ACT test, reports that only 17 percent of Wyoming students who took their college entrance exam met the benchmark for college readiness in English, math, reading and science. Education Week gave Wyoming a D-plus for K-12 achievement despite giving them an A for spending. We can all agree that Wyoming’s public schools are lacking when it comes to results.
Studies have shown that the most important in-class factor when it comes to student achievement isn’t higher spending or smaller class sizes or any of the other “reforms” that teachers unions argue for. No, the most important factor is teacher effectiveness. Having an effective teacher two to three years in a row can even overcome achievement gaps seen between races and economic gaps. Hoover’s Eric Hanushek estimates that replacing the bottom six to ten percent of teachers with competent educators would spring the United States into the top ranks of international testing.
I didn’t pick Wyoming at random: That state’s legislature is currently considering a parcel of education reform bills that would amend “tenure” — the cumbersome process of replacing an ineffective teacher that can take months and cost tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees — and allow administrators more leeway in getting rid of bad teachers. Wyoming has finally realized that throwing more money at America’s education problem isn’t the answer — getting bad teachers out of the classroom and good teachers into the classroom is.
Unfortunately, the Wyoming Education Association is pushing back, and legislators have inserted language into the bill that weakens it. Instead of being able to fire teachers for “any reason not specifically prohibited by law” — i.e., for racially or sexually discriminatory reasons — the law proposes that administrators must have “good or just cause” to fire a teacher. While that sounds reasonable, the fuzziness of the phrase “good or just cause” (and the lack of legal definition as to what constitutes “good or just cause”) means that there will still be months of hearings at great expense to school districts to get an ineffective teacher out of the classroom. In other words, not very much will have changed.
It’s time for Wyoming to step up for their kids. To learn more about what’s going on in the Cowboy State, check out our new webpage, StepUpWyoming.com.