Federal Data Reveals No Relationship Between Spending and Academic Outcomes in Wisconsin Schools

By: Will Flanders

Flying under the radar amidst the continuing pandemic is the news that the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) finally released school-level spending data for Wisconsin’s public schools. Required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), DPI appears to have dragged its feet as long as possible before providing this information to families and taxpayers. The data shows us that contrary to popular belief, there is little correlation between spending and student outcomes.

The data is broken down into several bins. The most important are the federal and state/local bins. These show (appropriately enough) the amount of spending from each level of government that has been allocated to each school. The other bins are the same across schools. These are the amount of federal and state/local funds that are sent to the district office and the district’s Local Education Agency (LEA). An example of how this data looks from one Milwaukee School, the Milwaukee Sign Language Academy, is presented below.

Funding from each level of government that has been allocated to the Milwaukee Sign Language Academy.

According to this data, more taxpayer spending bears almost no relationship to student outcomes. We at WILL have been making this point for years with data at the district level, but data from the school level puts an even finer point on it. The figure below compares spending at each school in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). As scores increase, the line slopes downward. This means that the schools in MPS that spend the most are among the lowest performers.

Per-pupil spending compared to student outcomes in Milwaukee Public Schools.

The oddity of this spending allocation can be highlighted by looking at some of the highest- and lowest-spending schools in the district. Carmen High School of Science and Technology is among the highest-performing schools in MPS according to the state’s report cards. This charter school receives $9,109 per pupil. North Division High School is among the lowest performing, with a proficiency rate in English/Language Arts of a staggering 1% on the most recent report card. This school is rewarded for its failure with more $15,049 per student.

This surprising outcome is not only exemplified by charter schools, which my own peer-reviewed research has shown do more with less. Golda Meir High School, with its selective admissions practices which tend to exclude students most in need, is regularly among the top performers in the district. Yet this school produces better outcomes spending $7,869 per student — half of what North Division is spending.

All of this is not to say that there are no legitimate reasons for spending variation within a district. It may well be the case that more spending is needed to help at-risk students achieve a modicum of success. But it is important for families, educators and taxpayers to have this information so that they can effectively evaluate what is happening in their local schools.

A couple reforms could improve the system further such as the Financial Efficiency Star Rating System Georgia has created. This shows the user which schools are most efficient with taxpayer money, and could also be used to help education policymakers develop best practices.

Another problem with the data as it is currently released is that it makes comparisons between districts all but impossible because districts have discretion on creating exclusions from the school-level spending. DPI includes a list of recommended exclusions, but districts have the freedom to disregard this advice, either including some of the costs as school-level costs or excluding even more spending. Given DPI’s track record of opposition to any sort of reform, it may be the case that opaqueness is attractive. But if the goal is making this data as useful as possible to the general public, policymakers ought to consider these changes.

Dr. Flanders is the research director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

A non-profit law & policy group in Wisconsin. We defend property rights, voting rights, school choice, religious liberty & other ideas conservative.