What Washington State Can Expect From Higher K-12 Spending

Just over a year ago, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the legislature was insufficiently funding K-12 education, and ordered it to boost that funding. A bi-partisan consensus now seems to have emerged that spending an extra $1 billion over the next two years is the proper first step in abiding with the Court’s ruling. Additional increases are likely to follow in later years. In a special budget session to begin today, the legislature will decide what balance of tax increases and economies in other areas will be used to raise the extra funds. 

So Washington state taxpayers are looking at the prospect of ever higher taxes to pay for ever higher education spending far into the future. Unless business blossoms unexpectedly in the next few years, that’s liable to be economically painful. Will it be worth it? As a guide, we might look at how effective previous increases in spending have been. 

Despite an increase in annual spending of $1.5 billion even after taking enrollment growth into account, academic performance has barely budged. The most hopeful signs are from the 4th (and uncharted 8th) grade NAEP scores, but there is good reason to doubt that even these very modest upticks lead to real reimprovements by the end of high school. One obvious indication of the problem is that SAT scores are essentially unchanged over the period. Another reason is that evidence from the NAEP Long Term Trends study reveals a pattern in which modest gains in the early grades evaporate by the end of high school (as can be seen on this nationwide chart of the performance of 17-year-olds). Based on the SAT scores, the same pattern likely holds in Washington state, but neither the Long Term Trends NAEP data series nor test results for older students are available at the state level.

Moreover, Washington state residents seem to drastically underestimate how much is spent per pupil in their public schools. In a 2012 survey, about half of respondents thought it was less than $8,000 / pupil. In fact, as shown in the chart above, total spending from all funds was $12,467 / pupil in that year. The survey also finds that when the public is informed about actual spending levels, support for increased K-12 spending falls dramatically (and that is true despite the fact that the survey in question misleadingly represented a lower partial spending figure as if it were total spending).

So Washington state has already tried even larger increases in spending than the one currently contemplated in Olympia with little or no academic effect. What’s the alternative? How about a proven policy for improving the achievement of students in both public and private schools that simultaneously saves millions of dollars?