A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Commentary: Strong school choice options is a better investment than more school spending

By Gary Houchens and John Garen

In a recent op-ed for the Courier Journal, Kentucky Rep. Tina Bojanowski who is also a teacher in the Jefferson County Public Schools, argued that the Commonwealth may be failing its mandate under the state constitution to adequately fund education.

Bojanowski, D-Louisville, said that state government’s share of education funding has not kept up with the rate of inflation and echoed a call by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence for lawmakers to pour $1 billion of additional funding into Kentucky’s schools. Bojanwoski and other education leaders she interviewed for her op-ed take for granted that increases in school spending will pay off with increases in student learning.

John Garen

Research on education funding does confirm that increases in school spending correlate with real – though exceedingly small – improvements in student achievement.  Though well-spent funding ought to lead to improvements, it is not clear why so little has been gained with spending increases and under what conditions it may lead to improvement. Moreover, lawmakers need to consider other possible educational policies like school choice initiatives as ways to improve student learning more effectively and at lower cost.

It is important to know that education funding in Kentucky has actually increased dramatically over the years. As John Garen, co-author of this op-ed, documents in his recent working paper for the Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise, education spending in Kentucky rose 80% (adjusted for inflation) between 1990 and 2019, steadily increasing every year except those in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession.

Some of that increase came from local school districts contributing more in per-pupil spending, but in 2019, only about a third of all education dollars were locally generated, while the state was responsible for 55% and the federal government 11%. Meanwhile, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the only reliable apples-to-apples method we have of comparing student performance across states, shows that reading and math achievement for Kentucky’s students has remained stagnant.

One can’t reasonably argue – based on historical data – that spending more in Kentucky has actually paid off with gains in student outcomes, nor that it will in the future. One can reasonably investigate, though, how and where funding does the most good.

A new paper from Northwestern University researchers Kirabo Jackson and Claire Mackevicius explores previous research on education spending increases. Jackson and Mackevicius analyze standardized measures of student spending and student achievement across an array of studies.

The researchers found that overall, increases in education spending led to only tiny improvements in test scores, though spending was more strongly related to higher high school graduation rates and college attendance.
Jackson and Mackevicius also found that these impacts varied across different student groups. Increases in spending had a bigger impact on outcomes for low-income students as compared with students from more affluent families.

However, even these effects are very small.  This suggests that targeting spending on low-income students can be more effective, though there is no clear evidence that spending has had much impact on closing achievement gaps.

The authors speculate that increases in education spending have also been limited and variable in their impact across states and districts because skyrocketing costs associated with teacher pension and health care benefits have absorbed much of the new educational dollars.


One of the most interesting findings from Jackson and Mackevicius’ study was that the outcome improvements related to increasing per pupil spending paled in comparison to the effects of attending a high-quality public charter school. Spending an extra $1,000 per pupil had only 15% of the effects compared with a student attending a charter school and half as much impact on college attendance.

As we know, Kentucky remains one of only six states that functionally prohibits charter schools from operating. Charter schools, which are public schools operated independently of local district control, have an outstanding track record of educating students from low-income urban environments.

If lawmakers care about improving student learning, especially for our most vulnerable populations, they should consider expanding and supporting school choice far more seriously than across-the-board increases in education spending.

That’s definitely the lesson from Florida where families enjoy a rich school choice environment, and where, as Bluegrass Institute education analyst Richard Innes has found, public school achievement is much higher than Kentucky’s even though Florida has a lower per-pupil funding rate.

Innes found that Kentucky’s education spending has increased much more than Florida’s over the years and now exceeds Florida’s by more than $1,700 per student. But Florida, a state with a strong menu of school choice policies, has improved its student achievement as measured by NAEP, despite having a larger and more diverse student population.

Adam Tyner, who contributed to Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck, has written, “Policymakers and the public need to know how much of an effect spending will actually have, whether some places are already spending so much that there are steep diminishing returns to additional outlays, and what types of spending get the most ‘bang for the buck.”

That is the kind of perspective Kentucky desperately needs in any conversation about education spending. Lawmakers need to consider education reform policies like charter schools rather than throwing more dollars at the system. Because so far, our investments are not paying off.

Gary W. Houchens, Ph.D., is professor of Educational Administration, Leadership and Research at Western Kentucky University and a former member of the Kentucky Board of Education. John Garen, Ph.D., is the BB&T Professor of Economics in the Gatton College of Business and Economics at the University of Kentucky. Both are members of the Bluegrass Institute Board of Scholars. 

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