Connecting the Dots: School Spending and Student Progress Financial Allocation Study for Texas 2010 (FAST)

This timely and useful study provides precisely
the type of information that financially-strapped school districts need to trim
their bottom lines—without sacrificing student learning. Written by Susan
Combs, The Lone Star State’s fearless comptroller, at the behest of her state
legislature, the report identifies Texas school districts that achieve strong
student performance while keeping spending growth at bay. Quite an assignment in
a state that increased its per-pupil spending by 63 percent in the last decade
(and that’s after taking enrollment growth into account). To determine which
districts could deliver this formidable one-two punch, Combs employed two
metrics. First, she and her team used a value-added model (controlling for
various student, district, and campus characteristics) to measure academic
progress over three years in reading and math. Then, they devised a spending
index for each district and campus by comparing them to their “fiscal peers”
(sites that serve comparable numbers and types of students and operate in
similar cost environments). Based on a combination of these two metrics, value-added
and spending data, each district or campus received a rating of one to five
stars, indicating the extent to which it produced strong academic growth at a
lower cost compared to peers. Five-star ratings, meaning fantastic student
progress and low spending compared to
fiscal peers, are rare. Only forty-three of the 1,235 school districts and
charter schools analyzed received a five-star rating (eleven of which were
charters). To bump up that number, the report offers cost-cutting solutions for
districts—like relaxing class-size limits and sharing facilities and services.
Though it stops short of recommending cutting teacher positions, the report
takes a hard line on the ballooning administrative posts in Texas. Eliminate
1,500 positions, and bring the state back down to its 1998-99 levels,
recommends Combs. It’ll save roughly $115 million annually in salaries alone. Along
with the written report, FAST includes a nifty website that allows districts to
compare their achievement, expenditures, and resource allocations to other
districts. “The FAST system is a national innovation that should be copied by
other states,” says Eric Hanushek. We couldn’t agree more: If we are going to
do more with less, we need to know what the more or less gets us.

Susan Combs, “Connecting the
Dots: School Spending and Student Progress
Financial Allocation Study for Texas 2010 (Austin, TX: Texas Comptroller
of Public Accounts, 2010).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.