Yesterday, in his advocacy for HJR 493, legislation that would remove the Tennessee Constitution’s requirement that the General Assembly adequately fund schools, State Representative Bill Dunn suggested that increasing funding for schools across the state actually does not improve student outcomes. He cited the initial BEP investment, started in 1992 and said that from beginning to end, the program actually resulted in lower student achievement numbers.
This would be a great way to prove Dunn’s case that the General Assembly need not provide additional funds to schools in order to provide an adequate education.
It’s also not true.
Dunn cited ACT scores from the start of the BEP until 1998 and suggested they’d gone down slightly. What he failed to mention is that between 1995 and 1998, the number of students taking the ACT increased by 25%. That would seem to indicate that Rep. Kevin Dunlap was correct when he suggested that new BEP funds created new opportunities for students in rural districts. As the State of Tennessee noted in the 1998 State Report Card:
The ACT is one of three tests approved by the State Board of Education to fulfill the requirement in state law that all students take an exit exam to receive a full high school diploma. The total number of Tennessee graduates taking the ACT rose 25% during the first three years of this new requirement: from 32,628 in 1995 to 40,782 in 1998. Included among those tested were 14,284 who had not completed a college preparatory course of study. Even with these dramatic increases in the number and percentage of students tested, Tennessee’s students were able to narrow the gap between the state and national composite scores in 1998.
So, more students than ever were taking the ACT and by 1998, the state was turning around an initial decline in scores. That’s a different story than the one Bill Dunn told.
Another way to look at the data is to see what happened on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) during the early BEP years. While reading scores from 1992 are not readily available, math scores are. Here’s the comparison:
4th Grade Math
8th Grade Math
These results show statistically significant improvements in math scores over the same time period the General Assembly was significantly improving investment in public schools. That is, what Bill Dunn said yesterday was just plain wrong.
Finally, it’s worth examining the ACT score differences among districts during the early BEP years. An examination of data beginning in 1991 (the year before BEP) and ending in 2001 (so as to provide 10 years of comparable data) indicates that the top scoring districts in the state on the ACT were also among the top spending districts. In fact, over those years, while not technically statistically significant, it can be said with 92% confidence that the difference in ACT scores among the highest- and lowest-performing districts is explained by per pupil expenditures. That is, the higher the spending, the more likely the district is to be among the state’s top performers on the ACT.
Additionally, during this same ten year time period, the gap between the highest and lowest scores among districts is clearly explained by the gap in per pupil expenditures among those districts. You spend more, you get better results. The impetus for all this spending was the new BEP formula that sent more money to all school systems. Those districts already at the top were most able to take advantage and boost ACT scores while those at the bottom saw an increase in the number of students taking the ACT, resulting in the statewide slight ACT decline Dunn references.
Investing in schools matters. Our state’s constitution requires the General Assembly to provide a system of free public schools, including providing adequate funding for those schools. Bill Dunn doesn’t think spending levels matter. The data suggests otherwise.
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