02/01/2011 05:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

In Public Education, Not Everyone Gets What They Pay For

A report examining the academic achievement produced by a school district relative to its educational spending was recently published by The Center for American Progress. The results of the analysis -- conducted while controlling for outside factors, such as the cost of living expenses and the percentage of students in poverty -- provide a data-driven counterpoint to the conventional wisdom that spending is everything when it comes to school performance.

Take the example of two California school districts in large cities: Los Angeles Unified and San Diego City Unified. They are similar in many ways. Both are very large (over 100,000 students) and both have a similar percentage of students from low-income familes (around 60 percent). Los Angeles Unifed, however, spends far more than San Diego City Unified. In 2008 -- the most recent year for which data is avaliable -- LAUSD spent $11,357 per student, or about $1,000 more than San Diego.

And that's not all. Indeed, the really big surprise is that despite similar student bodies and financial inputs, Los Angeles students score consistently lower than San Diego students on state reading and math exams from elementary all the way through high school.

In other words, San Diego would appear to get a far better return on its investment than Los Angeles, spending money more wisely to improve student outcomes. Ulrich Boser's report, "Return on Educational Investment: A district-by-district evaluation of productivity," is the first ever attempt to to determine the efficiency of nearly every major school district in the country. With a clearer picture of which district gets the best bang for its buck, we can get to the long overdue qualitative analysis: determining what makes productive school districts work.

This analysis is important because, as the report points out:

  • Low productivity is costing our nation's school systems as much as $175 billion per year.
  • Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be enrolled in inefficient districts.
  • Many districts could boost student achievement without necessarily increasing spending.

We encourage you to help figure out what works. Both the report and an interactive map are available online here. Take a look at your district, read the report, learn about the challenges facing today's school districts and see what the best among them are doing to make their schools work. Although this report tells us a lot about which districts are most productive, there's still much research needed to determine exactly what gets them there. And after that, all of us need to push so it's easier for states and districts to do what works.

You can help make that happen.

Sara Roberson, CAP Special Assistant, contributed to this blog post.