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May 2011 — Web Exclusive

Assessing Your Schools, FAST

Examining   Cost-Effectiveness   in Education

By Bruce Wright

Public education is one of Texas state government’s largest single expenditures, and perhaps the most important factor in ensuring our continuing economic prosperity. A new report from the Comptroller’s office can help Texans learn just what results they’re getting for their education dollars.

The 2009 Texas Legislature charged the Comptroller with identifying school districts that combine high academic achievement with cost-effective operations — in effect, to determine which districts are providing a good return on Texans’ investment. In response, the Comptroller’s office created the Financial Allocation Study for Texas (FAST), an unprecedented look at the link between school funding and academic results.

Vital Service, Big Cost

In Texas’ 2010-11 budget period, public K-12 schools received about 43.7 percent of the state’s general revenue. Our schools also account for a large portion of local government spending, as homeowners recognize whenever they pay their property taxes.

These costs have risen rapidly over the last decade. According to the Texas Education Agency, annual school district spending (including local, state and federal funds) rose by 95 percent between the 1998-99 and 2008-09 school years.

And surprisingly little of this increase was attributable to the state’s rapid population growth, as public school enrollment rose by just 19.7 percent over this period. Texas school district spending per student rose by 63 percent between 1998-99 and 2008-09, to $11,567.

The Legislature charged the Comptroller with identifying school districts that combine academic achievement with cost-effective operations.

In a time of extraordinarily tight budgets, spiraling cost figures such as these make it imperative that our schools spend their tax dollars as efficiently and effectively as possible — hence the FAST study.

Leveling the Playing Field

Factors other than funding can affect academic performance, of course, and many of these may be beyond school district control.

School districts throughout the state were assigned a FAST rating ranging from one to five stars.

The Comptroller’s FAST team worked with researchers at the state’s top universities as well as school district superintendents and trustees to ensure the fairness of its assessments. The methods used allow for numerous factors to ensure fair and accurate appraisals of relative school district success.

Academic progress measures used in FAST employ 32 variables, including factors such as student demographics, economic disadvantage and limited English proficiency. The spending assessments, in turn, control for eight variables, including total enrollment, area labor costs and each district’s geographic size.

FAST Results

Among the school districts examined by the FAST review team:
3.8 percent (43) earned a
5-star rating; 19.8 percent (224) earned a
4.5- or 4-star rating; 36.3 percent (411) earned a
3.5- or 3-star rating; 30.6 percent (346) earned a
2.5- or 2-star rating; and 9.5 percent (107) earned a
1.5- or 1-star rating.

Based on these measures, school districts throughout the state were assigned a FAST rating ranging from one to five stars.

“We found that 43 Texas school districts met the criteria for the five-star rating, producing consistently strong and cost-effective academic growth,” says Tom Currah, lead researcher on the FAST project.

The FAST report provides an array of best practices from the most efficient and effective school districts that can be used by other districts wishing to improve their operations. It also offers a series of Comptroller recommendations that could save state and local governments millions of dollars while maintaining or improving their academic results.

An accompanying Web-based tool allows users to run custom reports to compare school districts on measures of spending and academic success.

“The Web tool lets you review Texas Education Agency ratings and statistics as well as the new FAST indicators, for any district you choose,” says Beth Hallmark, who oversees the Comptroller’s Data Services Web team. There’s a wealth of information available. It’s all free of charge and will be updated annually. FN

View the FAST report and study school district cost-effectiveness in your area.

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