A Ridiculous Number of Kids Are Attending Unproductive Schools

More than 1 million American students attend schools where money isn’t being spent in ways that boost math and reading results.

(Photo: Brandon Magnus/Zuffa/Getty Images)

Jul 11, 2014· 1 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

A new report released this week has determined that as many as 1 million students in districts across the country are attending unproductive schools—a nationwide problem that affects affluent districts as well as poor ones.

The Center for American Progress compared a district’s per-pupil spending with its achievement test scores. It found that the main issue is not that districts waste money. Rather, write the report’s authors, “districts are spending taxpayer money in ways that do not appear to dramatically boost reading and math scores, and some districts are able to gain similar levels of reading and math achievement with the same population of students but at lower levels of per-student spending.”

Further, according to the report, the “productivity” of a school—the results it gets for the money it spends—is a “deeply pressing problem, with billions of dollars lost” in inefficient, misdirected, or wasteful spending.

The findings underscore that “the nation's schools suffer from a productivity crisis,” according to the report’s executive summary. “The data [suggests] that low productivity might cost the nation’s school systems billions of dollars a year. What’s more, too few states and districts tracked the bang that they received for their educational buck.”

While the center detected problems in districts that have a high per-student spending rate, students who receive subsidized meals—free or reduced-price school breakfasts or lunches—are more than twice as likely to attend school in a least-productive district.

“Many affluent districts, whether it was Scarsdale or Montgomery County, they didn’t do poorly. They have high achievement, but they’re also spending a lot, so that makes them not as productive,” Ulrich Boser, a CAP senior fellow and a report coauthor, told The Huffington Post. “We saw that a lot of affluent areas don’t do great. They get middling results. Clearly there are other districts out there that might be spending less.”

The report also hints at continuing racial disparities in education. African American children are eight times more likely to be enrolled in poor-performing districts than their white peers. Misdirected spending is also an issue: Some school districts in Texas, the report says, spend as much as $1,000 per student on athletics—far less than they spend on academics.

With Common Core reforms on the horizon, the problem of low-productivity districts—and inequity in spending between rich and poor districts—is missing from the discussion on education reform, according to the report. While it identified problems in school spending, the center emphasizes that the results should be interpreted as a call for more intelligent spending, not austerity.

“We need…to look at both who gets those education dollars and what they do with those dollars,” the report’s authors write.

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.