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More education spending doesn’t mean smarter students

Education quality and funding are often linked.

Liberals tend to favor higher spending and teacher salaries because it produces better results in students, while conservatives often tend to cut from education before anything else when balancing a budget.

Bill Clinton once said that higher quality schools tend to pay proportionally more of their revenue to teacher salaries than those who do not. His statement is based on the assumption that if teachers are paid more and receive more appreciation relative to their district’s budget constraints, they will subsequently teach better, which — in theory — leads to more well-rounded students.

I ran a regression to answer whether teacher pay and school quality correlate.

One limitation of this study is that the data does not match according to year; 2013-2014 spending figures are used with 2016 rankings. Figures were chosen from Wallethub because it has more precise, quantitative measures from 1-100 on school quality, rather than a simple ranking.

A lot can change in two school years, but the assumption is that state level spending is more or less equal in a two-year time frame, and one’s education quality score will remain steady within that same period. The implications of this mismatch will shrink once the later part of the study is examined. 

After running a regression that tried to answer if teacher pay and school quality were related, I found almost no correlation between teacher pay and education quality.

However, there are diminishing returns and optimization in almost all levels of economics. If a state were to experiment with a zero-dollar salary, they would likely see a mass exodus and drop in quality.

On the opposite side of the coin, if a state began paying teachers $150,000 per year, the state would likely see a flurry of new and eager teachers with a marginal increase in education quality. 

A final note concerning this study is per-pupil spending and its relation to education quality. I chose not to use aggregate spending because, of course, California will spend more than Vermont on students overall, but that is a population issue rather than a performance issue.

Per-pupil spending is the best way to control for state size while still searching for a meaningful relationship between spending and education quality. After all the data were compiled and fitted, this was the relationship between spending and education quality: 

There is seemingly no correlation between teacher pay and the quality of education produced. | Cameron Barrett/The Cougar

The amount spent per student directly correlates to the quality of education. | Cameron Barrett/The Cougar

This yielded more promising results, as spending and education quality are more strongly correlated, yet the correlation remains relatively weak. This is why I said the limitations of the study will narrow as the regressions are analyzed.

Though the education score and spending figures are mismatched, these correlations are so incredibly weak that it would be very unlikely this correlation would tighten a significant amount with matching data.

To be clear, spending is a factor in the quality of public education in the U.S., and perhaps a much more in-depth study district by district would yield different results, but the evidence provided is clear.

Spending is generally a weak predictor of education quality. Merely throwing money at problem school areas is not enough in some cases.

Columnist Cameron Barrett is an economics senior and can be reached at [email protected]

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