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School levies: why pay more? *UPDATED*

School levies: why pay more? *UPDATED*

Mitch Coffman
March 10, 2012

This post was updated on 3/12/12 with the preliminary 2010-11 Boise and Meridian District spending numbers which are not yet publicly available at the Idaho Department of Education website.

Many Idaho school districts, including Boise, Meridian, Nampa, Caldwell and Vallivue are asking voters to approve local levies on Tuesday, March 13, to supplement existing local, state and federal funding. Meridian, Nampa, Caldwell and Vallivue residents will vote on $28 million, $7 million, $5.5 million and $9 million two-year levies, respectively. Boise’s $70 million five-year levy would go on top of four permanent local levies: a 1983 levy for $2.9 million, two levies passed in 1988 for $1.8 million and $3 million, and another $3 million levy dating from 1995. The Boise School District also enjoys the benefits of a $94 million general obligation bond Boiseans passed in 2006.

The Boise School District has pushed hard for its new levy, with information at its website and leaflets sent home with students. Additionally, a pro-levy campaign organization has a website, district patrons have been receiving pro-levy robocalls and volunteers have been canvassing neighborhoods for support.

Before voting, residents of Boise and all other school districts wanting more money ought to ask, how much do districts spend now? What does the money buy? And, given educational outcomes, should patrons let districts have even more?

The Boise district spends more per pupil than what it costs to send a student to private school. One year at Bishop Kelly High School costs $8,390; actual tuition is less because the Catholic Church subsidizes the school. In 2010-11, per pupil spending amounts for the Boise and Meridian School Districts were $9,396 and $6,709 respectively, making the Boise School District’s per pupil spending 40 percent higher than Meridian’s. These numbers include funding from all revenue streams including local, state and federal dollars. Per pupil spending amounts for all Idaho school districts and public charter schools can be found at the Department of Education’s website.

As is the case with most organizations, employee wages and benefits take the largest portion of funding. Salaries for all public school employees in Idaho are available at AccountableIdaho.com by clicking on Payroll. Exploring AccountableIdaho reveals Boise School District employees are more expensive than Meridian’s. With 2,972 employees, the Boise School District has a $122 million payroll, while Meridian has 4,960 employees with a $129 million payroll. The Meridian School District employs 67 percent more people than Boise, but its payroll is only 6 percent larger.

Job benefits can be seen at school district websites, thanks to the Students Come First education reform laws requiring master agreements between teacher unions and school boards to be public. Boise’s master agreement  reveals teachers’ entire health insurance premiums are paid for by the district while Meridian’s shows the district pays $510.82 per month for each full-time teacher and the teacher pays $25 per month.

Since Boise School District employees are more expensive than those of its immediate neighbor, Meridian, and Boise teacher job benefits are better, it’s becoming apparent why Boise’s per pupil spending is 40 percent higher than Meridian’s. However, we need to examine educational outcomes before passing judgment on spending. Are Boise School District students receiving a 40 percent better education than Meridian School District students? If they are, then the extra spending might be worth it.

The Boise and Meridian school districts have several neighborhood schools, located close to one another, that can be compared for outcomes. My analysis presumes that the student demographics are approximately the same for these schools and that per pupil spending is the main difference. I deliberately did not compare Meridian’s Spalding Elementary School to Boise’s Horizon Elementary because even though the schools are close geographically, Spalding is a math and technology magnet school which might draw students who are more talented in those areas. The remaining general education elementary schools are a mile apart, the junior high and middle school are two miles apart and the high schools are four miles apart. These distances are similar to the distances between neighborhood schools within each district.

The tables list names, districts and types of schools along with percentages of students who were rated Proficient or higher on the reading and math Idaho Standard Achievement Tests (ISATs) during the most recent two school years. ISATs must be administered to all Idaho public school students in grades 3-10, making comparing ISAT scores a way to compare students from different districts.

Elementary school, district, test 2009-10 2010-11
Amity, Boise, reading 95.7 97
Desert Sage, Meridian, reading 91.7 91
Silver Sage, Meridian, reading 93.1 93.4
Amity, Boise, math 93 94.3
Desert Sage, Meridian, math 88.7 88.9
Silver Sage, Meridian, math 91.9 91.1


Elementary school, district, test 2009-10 2010-11
Valley View, Boise, reading 83.3 86.5
Summerwind, Meridian, reading 84.6 89.2
Valley View, Boise, math 86.6 81.8
Summerwind, Meridian, math 88.8 91.6


Junior high or middle school, district, test 2009-10 2010-11
West, Boise, reading 95.8 96.8
Lake Hazel, Meridian, reading 91.8 94
West, Boise, math 88.8 90.2
Lake Hazel, Meridian, math 88.2 88.3


High school, district, test 2009-10 2010-11
Capital, Boise, reading 91.4 93.9
Centennial, Meridian, reading 93.4 93.9
Capital, Boise, math 84.9 88.7
Centennial, Meridian, math 86.7 91.1


The outcomes for demographically similar schools with dissimilar spending levels are about the same. The exception is the 10-point spread between Summerwind, the less-expensive Meridian school, and Valley View in the percentages of kids scoring Proficient or higher in math in 2010-11. If, when spending less, the Meridian School District can get the same or better results than Boise gets for the same types of kids, then might the Boise School District be able to get Meridian-like results with Meridian-like spending? Boise patrons ought to think about this when deciding on Tuesday whether to raise their taxes even higher than they are now.

The truth is, nobody has been able to demonstrate a causative relationship between educational spending and educational outcomes. This ought to be self-evident, because if more spending meant more learning, then Newark, Detroit and Washington, D.C., would have some of the best public schools in the country.

In fact, the spending-learning disconnect was demonstrated once and for all -- to neutral audiences, anyway -- fifteen years ago. In 1985, a federal judge told the dilapidated, low-achieving Kansas City, Mo., school district to spend as much as it wanted on whatever it liked, and he ordered the state of Missouri to pay for it. After twelve years of no-holds-barred spending yielding the best facilities, a 12:1 student to teacher ratio and some of the highest teachers’ salaries in the country, student achievement levels remained the same.

The lesson to be learned is throwing money after the problem doesn’t solve what ails education. While Idaho taxpayers might not think of their school districts as ailing, and while it is obvious schools need some fundamental level of funding to keep operating, it is not obvious why districts keep asking for more money when there’s no proof more money means better schools. Taxpayers need to turn the tables and ask the districts, why should we pay more?

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