'Best and Worst School Districts for the Buck'

Montgomery Ranks 5th in U.S.; D.C., Alexandria Lag

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A new study by Forbes magazine ranks Montgomery County public schools fifth in the nation "for the buck," with nods to Howard and Loudoun schools for delivering return on educational investment. It ranks D.C. and Alexandria schools among the worst.

The analysis, "Best and Worst School Districts for the Buck," ranks 97 jurisdictions for performance -- as measured by SAT data and graduation rates -- relative to per-pupil spending. It focuses on locales with populations greater than 65,000 where more than half of school funds come from property taxes.

Education scholars and school system officials greeted the study as a flawed answer to a fascinating question: Which school districts deliver the best results for the tax dollars citizens invest?

"The value of this kind of analysis is to remind us that simply pouring more [money] into existing school systems is no formula for producing higher achievement out the other end," Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said in an e-mail.

But Finn derided this analysis as "just plain dumb" for failing to consider other factors, such as wealth and parent education, that affect test scores and graduation prospects.

The Forbes study takes the unusual approach of rating school systems from a stockbroker's perspective -- or, more specifically, the perspective of a stockbroker raising a family in the D.C. suburbs. Rather than simply rank them by SAT participation or outcome or graduation rate, it considers all three measures and a fourth, dollars spent.

The endeavor is skewed toward affluent and suburban schools, educators said, because of the focus on local property taxes; wealthier jurisdictions tend to pay a greater share of education costs from their own tax coffers. The top three systems in the resulting ranking are all suburban: Marin County, just north of San Francisco; Collin County, near Dallas; and Hamilton County, outside Indianapolis.

After adjusting for local cost of living, Forbes concludes that Montgomery County schools, too, are a comparatively good deal. For an investment of $8,824 per pupil in fiscal 2004, the county administered the SAT college-entrance exam to 77 percent of students and produced average scores of 1,101 for the Class of 2005; the graduation rate was 91 percent.

"The independent Forbes analysis confirms that the resources our community has invested to improve student achievement have indeed produced excellent returns," Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of Montgomery schools, said in a news release.

Alexandria schools, at the other extreme, spent $11,404 per student for an average SAT score of 963 and a 73 percent graduation rate. School officials noted that the school system has large numbers of students who are poor or learning English, and the costs of educating such pupils is relatively high.

The report ranked Howard County seventh, Loudoun 11th, Frederick 21st, Fairfax 28th, Calvert 51st, Arlington 64th, Anne Arundel 75th, the District 95th and Alexandria 97th.

"More spending doesn't necessarily buy you better schools," Forbes writes in the report, from the July 23 issue.

Paul Regnier, spokesman for Fairfax schools, said a quick comparison with the rival Montgomery system left him befuddled. The two systems rank neck-and-neck on most academic indicators. On the Forbes list, Montgomery came out on top.

"We have a lower per-pupil cost, and we have higher test scores," Regnier said. "Why are they fifth and we're 28th?"

The finding reflects decades of research showing little or no correlation between money and performance in public schools. And though researchers don't consider the Forbes analysis up to the standards of those academic works, they applauded the report for at least reaching the correct conclusion.

"The fact that there is no correlation overall between spending and performance means by definition that public school districts are not spending the money that we give them wisely," said Andrew J. Coulson, director of the libertarian Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company