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Noonan: More school funding not enough to achieve significant proficiency improvements

Author: Paula Noonan - April 28, 2017 - Updated: April 26, 2017

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Paula Noonan
Paula Noonan

The state boosted its per pupil funding for public school students by 2.8 percent out of the General Fund to $6,585,800,182 for 2017-2018. That number works out to $6,546.20 per student, according to Senate Bill 17-296. Adding other sources, the Colorado Department of Education estimates that the average per pupil funding for next year will be $7,605, up from $7,420.

For many districts, the actual per student spending total is somewhat higher based on numerous factors, such as size of school district, number of low-income children and special education. Many schools receive additional funding from mill levy overrides and federal grants that increase per-student dollars.

According to the Washington Post, in an article comparing per student spending in 2015, Colorado reached $8,647, placing it with Alabama, Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, South Dakota, North Carolina, Idaho and Utah at $8,700 or less. If the lower CDE number is accepted, then only Arizona, Idaho and Utah were lower.

As comparison, top spenders in 2015 were New York at $19,818, Alaska at $18,175, and New Jersey at $17,572. Of the three, New Jersey broke the top five in standardized test performance, according to Start Class, an education website, using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) as the comparison examination. In 2015, 44.3 percent of Jersey students tested in third to eighth grade were proficient overall.

It’s impossible to calculate the exact dollar amount per student necessary to get over 50 percent of students proficient. Colorado achieved a 39.3 overall proficient score in 2015 on NAEP that has remained about the same since then. Massachusetts was the only state that reached above 50 percent of students proficient, at 50.3. It spent an average of $14,415 per student, but economically diverse Boston spent over $20,000 per student. Massachusetts has long been heralded as a state that does best in the U.S. on the NAEP.

Number two on the NAEP 2015 score comparison was Masschusetts’ neighbor directly north, New Hampshire, at 47 percent overall proficient based on $13,721 average per student dollars. Minnesota was third at 45 percent proficient at $11,089.

Utah did better than Colorado with a 40 percent overall proficient rate even though it spent less. Of other neighboring states, Wyoming outperformed Colorado and tied Utah at 40 percent proficient based on $15,700. Nebraska hit 40.5 percent proficient with $11,579. New Mexico scored worst at 25 percent proficient at $9,012.

Many variables affect achievement results, with family income as the most predictive indicator. But if Massachusetts is any guide, including Boston’s high spending, it takes substantially more money than Colorado puts into its low-income students to bolster their achievement. In another article, the Washington Post found two states, Indiana and Minnesota, spent over 20 percent more on low-income children to achieve their higher achievement results, at 41.5 proficient for Indiana and 45 percent for Minnesota.

While more money obviously doesn’t guarantee better results, it’s generally a necessary condition. Massachusetts has the benefit of many outstanding institutions of higher education in the Boston area to support public schools. The state, also known as Taxachusetts, does wring good results from its investment.

Colorado now has the demographic foundation for better achievement with a thriving economy across many industries needing well-educated employees. The state could probably get by with Minnesota’s $11,089 per student investment to reach at least 45 percent of students proficient. The principal perspective is to see per student funding as an investment rather than a cost.

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.