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Less is more in Florida education spending

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LESS IS MORE: Florida ranks among the nations leaders in overall quality of education despite lower than average spending.

By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog

TALLAHASSEE – When it comes to education spending in Florida, the age old expression that “you get what you pay for” simply does not apply.

A recent U.S. Census report ranked Florida 42 out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in per pupil spending for elementary and secondary education.

The report reviewed data from 2011 and showed Florida spends $8,887 per student, well below the national average of $10,560.

But the low funding does not mean the Sunshine State has the 42nd worst K-12 education system in the nation.

On the contrary.

Education Week, a national research nonprofit, reports Florida consistently ranks near the top in education quality and student progress, largely debunking the idea that more spending equals better results.

Education Week ranked Florida 11 out of 50 in its 2011 Quality Counts list, and sixth among states last year despite factoring an “F” grade for low spending.

By comparison, the District of Columbia spent more than twice as much per student as Florida yet has one of the worst educational rankings in the country. New JerseyConnecticutAlaskaWyoming and Utah also spent double the Sunshine State while showing lesser results.

courtesy of the Cato Institute

BUCKING THE TREND: Federal education spending has skyrocketed nationally in recent years while student performance has remained flat. Florida is moving in the opposite direction.

The Quality Counts list evaluates states through six key indicators including student and teacher performance, as well as school finance.

“What matters most is not how much we spend, but how we spend the dollars we allocate,” former Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said earlier this year in a conference call to reporters. “High per pupil expenditures does not automatically produce high-achieving pupils.”

Florida also is outperforming other large but higher spending states in science, math and reading, according to the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress report card.

Progress among minority students also has trended well above the national average.

The reason for Florida’s success is a series of educational reforms often referred to as the Florida model, said Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based conservative nonprofit.

“After a decade of aggressive statewide reforms, students in Florida have made impressive strides on national exams, which should cause policymakers from around the country to study what’s happening in the Sunshine State,” Ladner wrote in a research document for the Heritage Foundation.

Expanding school choice options, improving teacher quality and implementing tough accountability standards are hallmarks for the Florida model.

Thought leaders from the liberal think-tank Center for American Progress also are acknowledging that simply pumping more taxpayer money into the system is not the answer.

“Countless studies have shown that how a school system spends its dollars can be just as important as how much it spends. But our country’s education system lacks the proper incentives, support, and accountability structures to ensure that resources deliver the most efficient results,” said senior fellow Ulrich Boser in an interview with the reform group Students First.

According to the Census report, roughly $18 billion of Florida’s $24 billion (that’s 75 percent) in K-12 expenditures went to employee salaries, wages and benefits.

The Education Intelligence Agency calculated that in the year prior to the report, $6,778 of $8,738 in per pupil spending went to employee compensation.

The Census report did not consider the $1 billion cut in education funding during Gov. Rick Scott’s first year in office, nor the $2 billion funding increase since.

Scott, a Republican, successfully pushed for $2,500 to $3,500 across-the-board teacher pay raises as part of the 2013 Florida budget.

Contact William Patrick at [email protected]


William Patrick is Watchdog.org’s Florida reporter. His work has been featured by Fox News, the Drudge Report, and Townhall.com, as well as other national news and opinion websites. He’s also been cited and reposted by numerous state news organizations, including Florida Trend, Sunshine State News and the Miami Herald, and is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Florida Press Association. William’s work has impacted discussions on education, privacy, criminal justice reform, and government and corporate accountability. Prior to joining Watchdog, William worked for the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Fla. There, he launched a legislative news website covering state economic issues. After leaving New York City in 2010, William worked for the Florida Attorney General’s Office where he assisted state attorneys general in prosecuting Medicaid Fraud. William graduated magna cum laude from Hunter College, City University of New York. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife and three young children.