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PolitiFact Florida | St. Petersburg Times
Sorting out the truth in state politics

PolitiFact Florida: Michelle Rhee right about per-pupil spending, wrong about student performance

TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators recently fawned over former Washington, D.C., public school chancellor Michelle Rhee as she addressed House and Senate members. Today, PolitiFact Florida offers its most sincere form of admiration:

We put Rhee in front of the Truth-O-Meter.

Rhee appeared in Tallahassee Feb. 8-9 to support Gov. Rick Scott's proposals to overhaul the K-12 system by ending teacher tenure and linking teacher pay to student test scores.

She also at least tacitly defended Scott's proposals to cut public education funding by $703 per student as part of his budget for 2011-12 and 2012-13.

"Money does not necessarily correlate with student achievement," Rhee said. "In this country in the last 30 years, we have more than doubled the amount of money we are spending per child … and the results have gotten worse, not better."

Are education funding and student results moving in opposite directions?

Per-pupil spending

Education spending certainly has increased in the last 30 years.

The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics has collected and analyzed per-pupil spending since 1919.

When adjusted for inflation, per-pupil spending has nearly doubled from $6,037 per student in 1976-77 to $11,674 in 2006-07, the last year figures are available.

(For the record, Florida says it spends about $6,900 per student. Scott proposes to shrink per-student funding to about $6,200).

The payback?

What the country has gotten for that investment — especially over a 30-year period — is more difficult to determine.

We first tried to compare the U.S. education system with those of other countries.

Common assessments, however, don't span 30 years. And different tests measure different-aged students.

The National Center on Education and the Economy tried to normalize the different worldwide assessments in 2005 by analyzing results from 1995-2003 in math, reading and science. The United States did not make the top 10 countries in any category.

But that's only measuring eight years, not 30. And that study considers only the position of U.S. students when compared with other nations — not the performance of U.S. students themselves.

We then looked at graduation rates, and found that the United States used to graduate more people from high school than any other country — it doesn't now — and that the country has slipped from second to 14th in handing out college diplomas.

But that's because other countries are graduating more students, not that the United States is graduating fewer.

U.S. performance

Without the appropriate data to consider Rhee's claim on the worldwide level, we next looked for ways to compare solely U.S. student performance.

Turns out we had better luck.

One of the best strings of data comes from the Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress, an assessment authorized by Congress to measure U.S. students in reading, mathematics, science, writing, history, civics, geography and other subjects.

Reading scores are available for 9-, 13- and 17-year-old students periodically starting in 1971. Math scores start in 1973.

In that span — from 1971-2008 — how have U.S. students performed on the test?

Contrary to what Rhee suggested, at every age level and in both math and reading, students have improved.

In reading, average scores from 1971 to 2008 went up 12 points for 9-year-olds and four points for 13-year-olds. The average score for 17-year-olds also improved, though just barely.

In math, it's the same story. Average scores from 1973 to 2008 increased 24 points for 9-year-olds and 15 points for 13-year-olds. The average score for 17-year-olds was higher, though not significantly different than in 1973.

Looking on a trend line, the results show slight to modest gains for students both in reading and mathematics. That's comparing the American students of 30 years ago with the American students of today.

Our ruling

During her trip to Florida, Rhee said that Americans, in the last 30 years, "have more than doubled the amount of money we are spending per child (on education) … and the results have gotten worse, not better."

Per-pupil spending has grown significantly over the past 30 years, and the United States spends among the most to educate its K-12 students. But to say that student results have gotten worse is an oversimplification.

Maybe the return for the increased spending isn't what people want, but student performance in math and reading has improved slightly over the past 30 years, according to statistics kept by the U.S. Department of Education. Different assessments essentially show that U.S. students have failed to make the gains that other countries have. But they haven't showed U.S. students performing worse. We rate this claim Half True.

The statement

Americans, in the last 30 years, "have more than doubled the amount of money we are spending per child (on education) … and the results have gotten worse, not better."

Michelle Rhee, in talking to Florida legislators.

The ruling

Spending has gone up. But student performance hasn't really dipped like Rhee suggested. We rate this claim Half True.

PolitiFact Florida: Michelle Rhee right about per-pupil spending, wrong about student performance 02/20/11 [Last modified: Sunday, February 20, 2011 10:10pm]
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