Do schools in Massachusetts perform better than Washington schools because they spend more money?

Mar 23, 2016

The Seattle Times recently published an informative article suggesting that students in Massachusetts learn better than students in Washington state because Massachusetts spends more money on its public schools.

The Times is correct that students in Massachusetts achieve significantly higher scores on national tests, graduate at higher rates and attend college at higher rates than Washington students.  Yet the reporting misses important policy reasons about why this is so.

Massachusetts schools perform better because of the way they spend public money, not just because they spend more of it.  Here is why:

- Massachusetts provides parents with education choice.  The public system operates 81 charter schools, a fraction of the state’s 1,800 public schools, but enough to provide options for children who are underserved by traditional schools.

- Massachusetts requires high school teachers to show mastery of their specific subject by passing a test measuring their knowledge.  Washington state schools, largely due to union rules, are only allowed to require teachers to meet a lower general-knowledge standard.

- Massachusetts maintains high expectations for students in math and reading achievement.  Washington has lowered academic expectations for students and cancelled the Washington Assessment in Student Learning (WASL) in math.

- In Massachusetts the state head of education is appointed by and accountable to the governor.  In Washington, the head of education is a lower-level statewide official chosen in a down-ballot election, making it difficult for the public to know who is responsible for the low performance of public schools.

- In Massachusetts 60% of school funding is provided through local taxes, keeping the people close to their community schools.  In Washington, due to court rulings, only 19% of school funding is provided locally.

Money alone does not explain the stark differences in education performance between the two states.  Massachusetts spends over $14,000 per student per year.  Washington spends a comparable amount, about $12,000 per student.  As our state supreme court noted in the McCleary decision, simply pouring more money into an unreformed system won’t help students

In Washington, public education is mired in high-stakes politics, labor stoppages and unending controversy.  School district interests and union executives create an appearance of scarcity by incessantly calling for more money, but block all efforts, like charter schools and family choice, at reforming the way public money is spent.

The Seattle Times reporter reluctantly admits that in the last two budgets the legislature has “squeezed out some more money” for schools, making it appear the people of Washington are too cheap to fund schools.  Actually, the people have been quite generous.  The legislature recently added about $5 billion to public schools, a whopping increase of 36%, while the student population increased only slightly.  The people of Washington now pay $18.2 billion to support public education, the highest level in the history of the state.

The comparison with Massachusetts schools and the real experiences of our own state demonstrate two truths about Washington public schools:

1. The people have massively increased education spending by 36%, and;

2. More money alone will not improve learning outcomes for children.

The special interests that benefit from public spending will continue to lobby for adding more money to education budgets.  No surprise there.  But we should not expect the positive outcomes enjoyed by families in Massachusetts to happen here without greater access to learning choices –  like individual Education Savings Accounts, more online learning and community-based charter schools – that are working so well in other states.