The writer, of Omaha, is executive director of the nonprofit group Educate Nebraska.
Dialogue regarding strategies to improve K-12 education in Nebraska must extend beyond calls for increased spending. Research shows that student outcomes do not correlate to increased spending alone. Yet, in Nebraska, the proposed solution to improving student outcomes is typically to spend more, creating an unsustainable economic cycle.
Of course, adequate funding of K-12 education is essential and the right thing to do for students. Nebraska must meet the threshold to ensure every child has access to a high-quality education and support equitable funding. Whether total funding comes from local or state resources does not matter in terms of impact on student achievement. What does matter is that Nebraska also adopt low to no-cost policies to improve student achievement.
If funding correlated directly to improved outcomes, Nebraska student performance would have increased in step with the national average over the last two decades. Instead, funding increased while student outcomes failed to keep pace with the national rate of improvement. According to Education Next, a research journal housed in the Kennedy School at Harvard University, while Nebraska's per pupil expenditure increase from 1992-2009 was average compared to other states, only four states had lower annual gains in student performance during that time.
In fiscal year 2013, when looking at total per-pupil spending, only 16 states spent more than Nebraska, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Nebraska should focus on what improves student outcomes and fund accordingly. High-quality teacher and principal preparation and support, extended school days and years, high academic standards, high-quality school choices for families of all income levels, improved transparency and accountability, and high expectations correlate to improved student outcomes.
Many other states have adopted such policies and, despite lower spending, have seen larger increases in student performance than those in Nebraska. This applies to states that, like Nebraska, are experiencing population shifts and changing demographics.
Take Florida: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in fiscal 2013, Nebraska spent $11,579 per student, Florida $8,433. From 1992 to 2013, Nebraska increased per-student expenditures by $3,355 (in 2015 dollars), Florida by $525.
Despite spending more, Nebraska failed to keep pace with the rate of student improvement in Florida and now performs worse overall.
Florida's fourth-grade reading surpassed Nebraska's overall and in each demographic subgroup from 1992 to 2013, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress. Whereas Nebraska outperformed Florida overall and in every subgroup in 1992, by 2013 Florida outperformed Nebraska in each subgroup.
Florida made larger learning gains than Nebraska among students living in poverty. Florida has also made significant strides in closing the achievement gap (the difference between white and non-white student performance). Nebraska's achievement gap grew during this time and is now among the largest in the nation.
Unlike Nebraska, Florida adopted myriad student-centered policies during this time, including expanding school choices for all families, increasing adult accountability and focusing on teacher quality and alternative pathways to teaching.
Nebraska should take the opportunity to model best practices from states that have seen large improvements in student performance. Based on data and research, this includes adopting student-centered policy reform, not simply increasing the amount spent without regard to changing practice. Best practices will benefit taxpayers and, more importantly, offer students a brighter future.