State’s ‘Money­ball’ ap­proach on ed­u­ca­tion spend­ing pay­ing off

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Opinion - Wil­liam Mat­tox is the direc­tor of the Mar­shall Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion Op­tions at the James Madi­son In­sti­tute in Tal­la­has­see. By Wil­liam Mat­tox

The 2019 leg­isla­tive ses­sion is fast ap­proach­ing – as is the 2019 Grape­fruit League spring train­ing sea­son. And while th­ese two cal­en­dar items may seem com­pletely un­re­lated, there’s ac­tu­ally a cu­ri­ous par­al­lel that Florida cit­i­zens ought to con­sider.

Florida law­mak­ers will soon be deal­ing with “the Goldilocks ques­tion” on ed­u­ca­tion spend­ing: Are we cur­rently spend­ing too lit­tle, too much, or just the right amount on K-12 stu­dents? In many ways, this is the same ques­tion Ma­jor League Base­ball front of­fices ask ev­ery spring about their player pay­rolls.

In the 1970s, soon af­ter MLB free agency be­gan, the stan­dard an­swer to the Goldilocks ques­tion in base­ball was “too lit­tle.” In the minds of most base­ball own­ers – and base­ball fans – spend­ing more to amass star play­ers in­vari­ably im­proved one’s chances of on-the-field suc­cess. And the way a team owner showed his com­mit­ment to win­ning was by open­ing his wal­let and spend­ing freely.

But a funny thing hap­pened in the wake of all this big spend­ing: The teams that spent freely of­ten fin­ished lower in the stand­ings than the teams that spent mod­estly-but-shrewdly. Thus, a new “Money­ball” phi­los­o­phy arose, in which MLB teams now rec­og­nize that the key to suc­cess isn’t spend­ing wildly – but spend­ing wisely.

Sadly, when it comes to ed­u­ca­tion spend­ing, many Es­tab­lish­ment folks seem stuck in the 1970s. They still be­lieve the way to im­prove K-12 ed­u­ca­tion is to spend wildly. And they still mea­sure “com­mit­ment to ed­u­ca­tion” by a law­maker’s will­ing­ness to open other peo­ple’s wal­lets (the tax­pay­ers) and spend freely.

Yet, a funny thing has been hap­pen­ing while the Ed­u­ca­tion Es­tab­lish­ment has been belly­ach­ing about “in­ad­e­quate” K-12 spend­ing. For the last 20+ years, Florida law­mak­ers have been fol­low­ing a “Money­ball” phi­los­o­phy in ed­u­ca­tion. And they’ve been get­ting re­mark­able re­sults.

Just last year, Florida proved to be the only state in the union to show sig­nif­i­cant learn­ing gains in all four cat­e­gories on the “na­tion’s re­port card,” the Na­tional As­sess­ment of Ed­u­ca­tional Progress (NAEP).

A new study by schol­ars at the Univer­sity of Texas at Dal­las shows that Florida stu­dents now rank #3 in the coun­try in dis­ag­gre­gated NAEP scores. And a land­mark 2014 Har­vard-Stan­ford study found that Florida de­liv­ers higher qual­ity in K-12 ed­u­ca­tion at a lower cost than any other state in the na­tion. (And it isn’t even very close.)

In fact, the only states that had learn­ing gains com­pa­ra­ble to Florida – Delaware, Mary­land, and Mas­sachusetts – all had per-pupil spend­ing in­creases at least three times as great as those in the Sun­shine State.

If re­sults like th­ese come as a sur­prise, there’s a good rea­son. The “spend wildly” crowd likes to high­light na­tional ed­u­ca­tion rank­ings that pe­nal­ize states that spend mod­estly and re­ward states that spend freely (as if in­puts like spend­ing were as im­por­tant as out­puts like learn­ing gains). Us­ing th­ese bo­gus rank­ings, the wild spenders even tried to get the Florida Supreme Court to is­sue a rul­ing re­quir­ing Florida to spend more on K-12 ed­u­ca­tion. Thank­fully, the lib­eral court, in one of its fi­nal rul­ings be­fore the end of last term, threw out this law­suit say­ing that law­mak­ers, not ju­di­cial um­pires, should de­ter­mine ap­pro­pri­ate K-12 spend­ing lev­els.

Now, the fact that Florida is a top per­former in K-12 ed­u­ca­tion na­tion­ally doesn’t mean that im­prove­ments can’t be made. In­deed, to his credit, Gov. DeSan­tis has called for elim­i­nat­ing “ad­min­is­tra­tive bloat” in pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion so that more of our cur­rent spend­ing reaches class­room teach­ers and stu­dents. That ought to help keep Florida at “the top of its game.”

Still, for re­form-minded pol­i­cy­mak­ers to con­tinue to be suc­cess­ful, Florida cit­i­zens need to in­creas­ingly em­brace a “Money­ball” men­tal­ity when it comes to ed­u­ca­tion spend­ing.

So, the next time you hear some­one say that the key to K-12 ed­u­ca­tion is to spend wildly, tell them the 1970s are over. Disco is dead. Polyester is gauche. K-12 “Money­ball” is here. And Florida is win­ning. Big time.

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