A Rutgers Study Found That Alaska Schools Are The Second Most Well Funded


During his March 15 press conference, Gov. Mike Dunleavy referenced a recent Rutgers study that found Alaska has the second best-funded school system in the United States. It’s probably worth delving deeper into that study, given few in the media appear to be interested enough to ask a follow-up question about it.

The study, conducted in collaboration with Rutgers University in New Jersey and The University of Miami, looked at how adequately different state school systems were funded, based on 125 different factors such as cost of living differences and state wealth. This is an excerpt from the study’s executive summary.

“Good school finance systems compensate for problems that states cannot control (e.g., student poverty, labor expenses) by directing financing to districts that need it the most. We developed a system to evaluate states based mostly on how effectively they achieve this balance. We evaluate each state’s funding while directly accounting for the children and communities serviced by its public schools.

“This is significant because how much a specific district or state spends on its schools alone is a pretty crude indicator of how well those schools are supported. High-poverty districts, for example, require more resources to accomplish a certain outcome goal—say, a specific average score on a standardized test—than more affluent districts. In other words, education expenses differ based on student populations, labor markets, and other variables. That is a crucial principle in school finance.

In the study, states were ranked and scored on a scale of 1 to 100 for financing adequacy. Alaska had a score of 95 out of 100, trailing Wyoming (97 points) but ahead of New Hampshire (86 points), Maine (85 points), and New York (83).

Florida had the lowest funding level, receiving a score of 12 out of 100. North Carolina came in second with 13 points, followed by Nevada with 14.

It is remarkable that despite being dead last in budget sufficiency, Florida produces some of the finest student achievements in the US. Florida ranked first in the United States for both reading and math scores for low-income fourth graders on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Florida also ranked third in fourth grade reading and seventh in fourth grade math for students from upper/middle-income families. Alaska was ranked 51st, 48th, 50th, and 49th in the same categories.

But who cares about fourth-grade scores? What actually important is the quality of high school graduates produced by a system, correct? The percentage of students who graduate with an Advanced Placement (AP) test score of 3 or higher is likely the strongest measure of the quality of pupils graduating from a system. In 2022, 28.8% of Florida high school graduates passed at least one AP test with a 3 or above, the third highest rate in the US. Alaska ranked 45th in the United States for that category, with only 11.9%.

The Rutgers analysis has one limitation: it only includes state and local K-12 financing. Alaska receives the most government assistance by far, at $3,343 per pupil. That’s 85% higher than the national average of $1,808 and 16% higher than the second-highest state (North Dakota). Florida ranked 28th in the nation in federal government funding per student at $1,681, despite having a far greater poverty rate and a much larger percentage of pupils who do not speak English “very well” than Alaska.

According to the Rutgers study, Alaskans devote a greater portion of their overall GDP to K12 education than the vast majority of states – both on a state and municipal level. That comes from researchers in New Jersey and Florida who have no motivation to make Alaska look good or bad in this sense.

Some would argue that the governor cherry-picked that particular study. I do not think so. I looked for nationwide adequacy studies that came to a different conclusion than Rutgers, but I couldn’t find any.

The Anchorage School District did pay for a local adequacy funding study by a well-known business that charges hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to undertake such assessments. I’m curious how much repeat business that firm would receive if they hadn’t reached the results the clients were seeking for before the study was began.

We’re long overdue to figure out how to direct our generous contributions to K12 on positive results for our children. Record gains in state K12 funding without real reform are like doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Insanity.

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