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Funding Crisis: Education funding – Does more equal better?

By By PAUL KEANE - Special to The Standard
(Editor's Note: This is the second in a six-part series looking at the funding crisis facing Escambia County public schools. Today's installment looks at how funding relates to performance in public schools in the State of Alabama.)
People say the best things in life are free. When it comes to formal education, though, officials across the state say money makes a difference in providing the best for students.
For the most part, test scores and other performance measures seem to bear that sentiment out.
Morton and his staff recently conducted a survey that says, on average, the top 10 school districts in the state provide $3,355 per student in local funding. The bottom 10 average provides $453 per student in local funds.
He further added that -- in many cases -- performance in standardized testing used statewide reflects the same results -- with schools with the least local funding having the lowest scores and schools with the most local funding having the higher scores.
The reason for the correlation is simple, he said.
According to the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT) results from the spring of 2002 -- the last time the tests were administered -- Morton does have a point.
Of the top 10 schools on the results list -- ranked by score -- Mountain Brook City School district has five schools listed among the elite. That school district provides $4,160.63 per pupil each year in local funding.
Also in the top 10 is Huntsville City District's Mountain Gap Middle School and Vestavia Hills City District's Liberty Park Elementary and Louis Pizitz Middle School. The Huntsville City School District provides $2,322.74 in local funding per pupil while Vestavia Hills provides $3,225.33 per pupil from local monies.
In comparison, Escambia County School District provides $951.13 per pupil in local funding while Brewton City School District provides $1,499.75.
All of the schools listed in the top 10 for SAT results recorded scores of 85 or higher. The highest school listed in Escambia County was Huxford Elementary with a score of 66, followed by McCall Junior High School with a 62.
During discussions of the funding crisis faced by Escambia County schools, Superintendent Melvin "Buck" Powell has indicated that the state may close some schools in the district, with Huxford and McCall being the ones most frequently mentioned for possible closure.
At the bottom 10 of the SAT list are eight schools that provide less than $1,000 a year per pupil in local funding. Only Courtland High School in the Lawrence County system ($1,033.40) and Lincoln Middle School in the Birmingham City system ($1,610.73) provide funding that reaches four digits. Most of the schools at the bottom of the list provide less than $950 per pupil in local funding, and all 10 of the test scores were 28 or less.
The same trend holds true when looking at the Alabama Direct Assessment of Writing for Grade 7, also taken in the spring of last year. Seven of the top 10 schools all spend $2,100 or more per pupil while the bottom 10 features only two schools that spend even half that amount.
In schools in neighboring counties and areas, the numbers are similar when looking at SAT performance:
The Mountain Brook City School District, considered to be one of the premier districts in the state, provides one of the highest levels of local funding in the state. The results speak for themselves.
All but five of the 264 graduates from the Class of 2002 went on to attend college, with two opting for military service and three undecided on future plans at the time of graduation. There were 22 National Merit Scholar finalists among the graduating class, and the composite ACT score was 25.19 while the composite SAT score was 1,208, both well above the national average.
In addition, schools in the district have been recognized with Awards of Excellence by the National School Public Relations Association and with Blue Ribbon School Awards from the U.S. Department of Education Recognition Program.
Money not the only factor
Simply putting money into a system will not solve all the problems. Many school districts provide solid funding and still don't get the desired results while other districts provide minimum funding and get good results.
Huntsville City Schools provides $2,322.74 per pupil locally, but Roy Stone Middle School and University Place Elementary rank No. 910 and No. 911, respectively, with SAT scores of 34.
On the other end of the spectrum are two schools in the Montgomery County School District, both of which made the top 10 in SAT scores this past year. Forest Avenue Elementary School ranked No. 1 with a score of 90 while Baldwin Art and Academics Magnet School ranked No. 8 with a score of 85.
Both schools are provided $935.37 a year per pupil in local funding, but officials say the make-up of those schools combined with parental involvement have caused the success.
Montgomery County has a total of 10 magnet schools, with three of those dedicated to academics. Students can enter a magnet school at the elementary level and continue in an academic magnet program through high school graduation.
Even with the success, though, Mann admits her district is feeling the crunch of dwindling state and local funds.
(Next: Property taxes for education. What it would mean to homeowners and educators, and what would the process involve?)