Payson Schools Get Big Bang For A Buck

National study concludes PUSD ranks as one of the most efficient schools in the nation based on budgets and test scores

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Payson schools get more “bang for their buck” than the great majority of school districts in the state or nation, according to the results of a groundbreaking national survey on school efficiency.

Payson schools rank among in the top third nationally on student scores but in the bottom third in the adjusted cost per student, according to the comprehensive survey by the Center for American Progress, released last month.

The Payson Unified School District actually ranked seventh statewide when it came to beating the “expected” student test scores based on things like total budget and the number of low-income students in the school.

“It would be analogous to a high poverty, homeless student getting a full scholarship to Stanford. That’s an exaggeration, but the basic drift in beating the demographic odds. We significantly outperform our demographic profile,” said PUSD Superintendent Casey O’Brien.

The researchers concluded that inflation-adjusted spending on education nationally has tripled in the past 40 years, but student test scores have stagnated or declined. The U.S. now spends more per student on education than most other industrialized countries, but American students increasingly lag behind their counterparts internationally.

“Despite massive increases in expenditures,” the researchers concluded, “overall student outcomes have remained largely stagnant, and achievement gaps remain wide in many areas. American taxpayers, in other words, have seen only a small return on the dollars they’ve invested in the nation’s school system over the past 40 years. This can and must change.”

The researchers analyzed the budgets and test scores of schools that enroll more than 80 percent of the nation’s students to provide a rough measure of which districts got the highest achievement for the lowest expenditure.

The researchers took the raw budget numbers and student test scores, then corrected for things like the percentage of low-income students, the percentage of special education students, the cost of living in the district and other factors.

Payson ranked in the top tier nationally due to its combination of high scores and low costs.

The district rankings, based on 2008 scores and budgets, provided a fascinating snapshot of districts nationwide.

Payson’s high ratings came in spite of a somewhat higher than average share of low-income students. Some 54 percent of Payson’s students qualified as low-income, compared to 47 percent statewide.

Nonetheless, Payson students scored well above the state average.

The district’s elementary school students did especially well — scoring 16 percent to 19 percent higher than the state average in math and reading. The Payson advantage dwindled to 5 percent above the state average in middle school and deteriorated to 2 percent below the state average in 12th-grade.

The district had slightly more low-income students than the state average and roughly the same share of special education students. However, only 18 percent of the district’s students were from minority groups compared to 52 percent of the students statewide.

The district spent $7,463 per student. Of that, 37 percent came from the state, 55 percent from local property taxes and 8 percent from the federal government. The study focused on statistics from 2008, so did not take into account the sharp drop in state support in the past two years. The district got a big infusion of federal money last year and this year, which will mostly evaporate in fiscal 2011-12.

The district spent 58 percent of its money on “instructional expenditures” — mostly teacher salaries. That’s a little less than the national average, which stands at about 60 percent. The other highly efficient districts in the country spent more like 61 percent of their budgets on the classroom, according to the study.

Payson schools spent 10 percent of its budget on administration, 21 percent on operations and food service and 11 percent on student and staff support.

The researchers tried to adjust the spending figures so they could compare districts nationwide.

The study took into account Payson’s above-average cost of living. That means that the $7,463 per-student spent in Payson actually represented $8,849 per-student compared to districts nationwide. Then the researchers adjusted the figures again based on the number of special needs and low-income students, which generally cost 40 percent more to educate comparably. After making that adjustment, Payson’s per-student spending came out at $6,491 on a national scale.

In Arizona, that adjusted per-student rate ranged from $10,020 to $5,385. Payson ranked 29th out of 85 districts.

The study found dramatic differences in per-student spending among the states, but concluded that higher spending doesn’t necessarily produce higher test scores.

Some states had dramatic differences between rich districts and poor districts. In Arizona, the adjusted spending gap stands at $4,635 per student. That’s higher than a lot of states, but much less than California’s $6,175, Nevada’s $6,731, Colorado’s $4,723 or New Mexico’s $6,109.

Arizona also had one of the most dramatic ranges between the most efficient districts and the least efficient. If the least efficient districts in Arizona got as much achievement per dollar spent as Payson schools, their scores would shoot up 36 percent — second only to New Mexico’s 38 percent nationwide, according to the study’s findings.

The researchers concluded that the money spent does matter — but it doesn’t guarantee results. If the “inefficient” schools nationwide did as well as highly efficient schools like Payson, it would save $175 billion annually, the study concluded.

Roughly 3 percent of the nation’s students attend highly inefficient schools, with high per-student spending and low test scores.

The researchers tried to tease out of the mass of data the qualities that distinguish highly efficient schools.

For instance, they devote about 3 percent less of their budgets to the classroom. In that regard, at least, Payson schools actually resembled inefficient schools rather than the other highly efficient schools.

The most efficient schools, like Payson, also focus intensively on student achievement, had strong community support and showed a willingness to make tough budget and program choices, the researchers concluded.

“Our emphasis on productivity does not mean we endorse unfettered market-based reforms, such as vouchers allowing parents to direct funds to private schools,” the report concluded.

“Nor do we argue that policymakers should spend less on education. Transforming our schools will demand both real resources and real reform.”

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