A viral TikTok video from Carmel High School outside Indianapolis, Indiana, has sparked a revealing conversation about school funding and school performance. The video, which had more than 34 million views on TikTok and Twitter as of Wednesday morning, shows a group of students touring their sprawling and well-kept suburban campus. Public school facilities include a large glittering auditorium, a car shop and a planetarium.
Critics were quick to argue that Carmel’s schools must be better funded than poorly-performing Indianapolis city schools. “[W]When you look at this and then look at the other ‘publicly funded’ high schools in Indianapolis, you realize how racist Indiana is.” wrote A Twitter user on a post with over 9 million views.
“Many of us know all too well what it’s like to have to build trailers primarily to go to high school, even though we’ve learned that wealthy neighborhoods have state-of-the-art facilities.” Posted by another user.
However, Carmel High School spends significantly less per student than public high schools in Indianapolis. According to the Indiana Department of Education, Carmel High School spent $3,500 to $6,000 less per student in 2020 than all four public high schools in Indianapolis.
Even with this huge cost gap, there are significant differences in performance. At Carmel High School, 71 percent of students are proficient in math, and 89 percent are proficient in reading; In Indianapolis City Schools, only 6 and 26 percent are proficient in math and reading, respectively. Indianapolis public high schools are failing—but it’s not for lack of money.
As it turns out, the correlation between funding and school quality is extremely weak. According to a 2012 report by researchers at Harvard and Stanford, “On average, an additional $1,000 in per-pupil spending is associated with an annual gain in achievement of one-tenth of 1 percent of a standard deviation. But that small amount has no statistical or real significance.”
Also, a 2019 analysis of the National Assessment of Educational Progress Test scores showed that “six of the top 10 states that improved their average test scores on NAEP were among the 11 states with the smallest funding increases. In contrast, New York made the same progress as Michigan while income rose by about $10,000. Students, in raw dollars, 76 percent increased. Michigan’s inadequate funding growth during this period was 26 percent.”
The comparison is even greater when looking at state-by-state examples. In 2019, Utah spent the least on education in the U.S.—just $7,811 per student, according to US News & World Report. Neighboring Wyoming spent nearly $10,000 more per student—an average of $17,018 per student. Despite this gap, the performance of students in the two states is remarkably similar. 44 percent of 4th graders in Wyoming are proficient or better in math, compared to 42 percent of 4th graders in Utah. In reading, 38 percent of Wyoming’s 4th graders are proficient or better, compared to 37 percent of Utah’s 4th graders. It’s unclear what thousands of dollars in additional funding is doing to Wyoming public schools—but it doesn’t seem to help students learn better.
Why doesn’t more money always help improve schools? Mainly, the answer is that failing yet well-funded schools often don’t spend their money wisely.
“More money can help schools succeed, but not if they waste those extra resources in unproductive ways,” said Jay Green, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. because. “There’s no one formula for how to properly spend money in schools. But there are a number of common ways that schools waste resources. Wasteful schools tend to hire more non-teaching staff to increase salaries and benefits costs for all staff, regardless of their contributions. For student outcomes. If you If you completely disconnect compensation from performance, you can increase pay and benefits indefinitely without anyone learning more.”
While making better spending choices can help close some of the gap between affluent and non-affluent schools, it’s worth noting that student poverty has a major impact on school performance. At Carmel High School, for example, only 10 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. At George Washington Community High School in Indianapolis, 66 percent of students are eligible.
Often, these challenges are difficult for schools to address, as low-income children often face a disadvantage long before they start school. For example, a Brookings Institution report found that nearly half of all low-income children are not ready to start school by age five. So, it’s unlikely that two schools with very different student populations could end up with the same results – no matter how much money is spent.
That said, a high concentration of low-income students does not necessarily mean that a school is low-performing. Many charter schools outperform local public schools even with much lower per-pupil costs—and, in many cases, more low-income students. The difference is that charter schools are incentivized to make good financial decisions because parents can leave if they feel their child’s needs aren’t being met.
“Because charter schools are more accountable to parents for outcomes, they tend to use their resources more effectively to achieve the outcomes parents want,” Green added.
As long as parents—especially low-income parents without the ability to move to another school district—only have the option of sending their child to a local public school, it’s hard to imagine irresponsible spending habits changing anytime soon.
“Unfortunately, the existing public school system has practices and policies that divert additional money to things that do not improve student outcomes,” Green said. “Some schools, particularly in the private and charter sectors where they are more accountable to parents for results, have adopted better practices and policies that put more pressure on education money, which is why we see some very high-performing schools that spend . Relatively little.”