A few nights ago, I went to a film screening of They Say It Can’t Be Done. It’s a film about how innovative technologies and techniques can improve our world, yet improper regulation too often stifles miraculous innovations, leaving them in regulatory purgatory for what can seem like an eternity.
After the event, viewers could head to the lobby area, grab a drink, and converse with one of the filmmakers on the project. Since it was about what the government gets wrong, that conversation slowly divulged into what the government gets right. One woman spoke up about being from Vermont and how low-income and minority kids there have social mobility because they fund their schools highly and “give kids a chance,” unlike in North Carolina, according to her.
I listened and pondered her comments with high skepticism. After that, I went home and started researching whether Vermont’s public schools really did perform better and give kids more of “a chance” than North Carolina.
The results? No. Vermont is not handing children some golden ticket to social mobility – at least its public schools aren’t.
Vermont’s performance on 4th-grade and 8th-grade reading and math comprehension, when adjusted for age, race/ethnicity, special education status, free and reduced-price lunch eligibility, and English language learner status falls below (and sometimes FAR below) North Carolina. Vermont has one of the highest disparities between raw test scores and adjusted test scores. North Carolina, however, has one of the lowest.
Translation? Yes. White middle/upper-class students do well in Vermont, but the school system there appears to have left minority and low-income students far behind their peers. Low-income students and minority students in North Carolina, on the other hand, are more likely to have higher scores on math and reading comprehension – implying North Carolina better serves these students.
So are schools in Vermont giving kids a better shake than North Carolina does? Well, the evidence doesn’t support that claim. In fact, it supports the opposite. Vermont spends more than double the amount per pupil than does North Carolina – only to get worse outcomes for its least-advantaged students. This just goes to show that increasing funding for K-12 schools is not a silver bullet. Just because a state spends more money in the classroom does not mean that money translates into better outcomes for students. Education is more complex than that.