Study: More expense on classroom instruction = better student education

Mississippi can’t do anything about poverty overnight, but it could require accountability for current education expenditures

The high poverty rate among Mississippi public school students significantly and negatively impacts student achievement, a Stennis Institute study shows. That’s no surprise.

But the study also produces numbers showing that Mississippi public school districts that spend higher percentages of their budgets on classroom instruction tend to have students who perform better on standardized tests.

While there are no easy answers to poverty in Mississippi, budgetary issues could be addressed by state leadership.

Although some exceptions do exist, the Stennis report concluded that the positive relationship between expenditure on instruction and higher student test scores “indicates a need to maximize expenditures for instruction.” The report, “Mississippi School Districts: Expenditures and Revenues” analyzed the 2007-2008 school year.

Across Mississippi’s 152 school districts, expenditures on instruction ranged from 76.6 percent to as low as 57 percent of school district budgets. Schools ranking among those with the lowest percentage of students scoring “proficient” on the 6th-grade Math Mississippi Curriculum Test were also in the category of the 15 school districts that spent the lowest budget percentages on instruction.

Yet, when asked, leaders of the state House and Senate education committees said they knew of no major advocacy movement for state supervision of school district budgets. Both House education chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, and Senate education chair Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, said the Legislature has tended to favor “home rule” of school districts.

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We are “trying to give more control to local school districts. That seems to be what people want,” Brown said.

According to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), “We give them a lump sum amount of money. We tell them what we expect of them. It’s up to the local school board and superintendent to comply with the law and produce an adequate level of education,” he said.

Brown did introduce House Bill 1170 in the 2010 session, which was passed by the Legislature and requires school districts that have fund balances of less than 7 percent to get their budgets approved by the state.

Carmichael said he is open to the idea of the state becoming involved in school district budgets.

“We have a tendency to leave districts more in home rule, but if we give them home rule and they’re failing, we’re still responsible for those kids,” he said.

Currently, local public school districts make their own decisions about distribution of funds, said a Mississippi Board of Education spokesperson. The Board does require that the districts meet certain accreditation standards, which include a required student-teacher ratio, the proper certification of teachers, etc.

The districts are, however, audited by the State Auditor.

The Mississippi Board of Education is comprised of nine members who appoint the state superintendent of education, who is currently Dr. Tom Burnham. Burnham was not available for comment.

Data supports consolidation

The Stennis study data also indicates that the operating expenditure per student decreases as the number of students per school district increases.

There are substantial difference between school districts with similar enrollment sizes and the amount of money spent per student. Oktibbeha County District, for example, enrolls 828 students and spends an average of $13,002 per pupil. Yet the Enterprise District enrolls 844 students and spends an average of $7,995 per pupil.

Although Oktibbeha has the third highest expenditure per student for transportation ($1,231 per pupil), “This alone does not explain the difference in total expenditure per student when comparing this district to other districts with equivalent enrollment,” the report states.

Mississippi has 82 counties and 152 school districts. Bolivar County, for example, comprises six school districts.

Dialogue regarding the possibility of consolidating schools to maximize educational quality and eliminate wasteful administrative spending was introduced with the formation of Gov. Haley Barbour’s Commission on Mississippi Education Structure, which convened in January.

Barbour recommended reducing the number of school districts to 100.

Both Brown and Carmichael served on the Committee.

“I’m in favor of (school consolidation) if it will improve our education outcomes and if the local people support it,” Brown said, adding that he hasn’t seen any clear-cut evidence to support or refute the suggestion.

Carmichael is open to consolidation, although he said it would not be an easy task. Numerous factors, such as financing, various student achievement levels and developing a structure of consolidation, have to be considered. One complicating factor is that some districts elect their school board members and superintendents and others appoint them, he said.

“Personally, I think if we consolidate, we don’t need to consolidate along county lines or municipal district lines, but look at regional consolidation in some cases,” Carmichael said.

In September the Governor’s Committee released four recommendations:

>> Amend state law to consolidate statewide procurement of items such as buses, copy paper and janitorial supplies.

>> Consolidate districts based on a data-driven model, such as the one developed by an independent consulting firm retained by the Commission. Their goal is to identify potential districts to be consolidated prior to new legislative session.

>> Give the Board of Education authority to dissolve districts placed in conservatorship or the Recovery School District and restructure them. (Note: The Hazlehurst, Indianola, North Panola and Tate County school districts are currently under state conservatorship.)

>> Require districts within each county to consolidate support and back office operations.

Editor’s Note: The John C. Stennis Institute of Government, often referred to as the state’s “think tank,” is a policy research and assistance institute at Mississippi State University. “Mississippi School Districts: Expenditures and Revenues” was prepared pro bono, as is much of the institute’s work, by research analyst Judith Phillips, and released in the summer of 2009. Director Dr. Marty Wiseman could not be reached for comment at press time.

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