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How much does district spending impact student outcomes?

May 23, 2024

With graduation ceremonies happening across the nation this month, we ought to celebrate what graduating from high school accomplishes in the lives of students.

For instance, the “success sequence” is a data-backed set of decisions that says 97% of young people avoid poverty if they graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before having children.

Teaching this information to students is helpful to them in making good choices, but creating public policy that supports students in taking those steps is crucial too.

For those in education or education policy, then, high school graduation is a key metric worth analyzing, both in terms of asking “How are we doing?” and “How can we do better?”

A closer look at graduation rates

Utah’s statewide graduation rate for 2023 was 88.3%, an achievement that follows five years of consistently inching upward. Obviously, individual school districts fare better or worse than the state graduation rate. Why certain districts have higher or lower graduation rates can be difficult to nail down. And finding out exactly how to impact graduation rates is also complex because there is not one specific variable that predicts whether a student will drop out. However, factors like family structure, parent education, disability, attendance, misbehavior or academic problems can all play a role.

Furthermore, parent engagement has impacts on student achievement. Chronic absenteeism can make it difficult for students to keep up and graduate on time. And of course, the personal motivation of students can determine whether they receive their diploma.

District spending and outcomes

Often discussions about improving outcomes for students revert to money. While funding and spending is an important factor in public schools, it’s not clear how and when money translates to specific outcomes, including graduation rates. For some perspective, we looked at student metrics from all 41 public school districts, with special attention given to the 10 districts with the highest per pupil spending amount and the 10 districts with the lowest per pupil spending amount to see how they performed on the state report card and graduation rates.

Per pupil spending is not always predictive 

It is worth noting that the top three highest graduation rates from individual districts are Kane School District (98.9% graduation rate), Rich School District (97.2% graduation rate) and Juab School District (95.5%). Rich School District is listed among those with the highest per pupil spending, and Juab is among those with one of the lowest per pupil spending.

Likewise, only four out of 10 districts with the highest per pupil spending have a 90% or higher graduation rate. Out of the 10 districts with the lowest per pupil spending, seven have 90% or higher graduation rate.

Districts that fall below the statewide graduation rate of 88.3% also include a mix of those who spend the highest (Garfield, Emery and Tintic) and the lowest per pupil (Tooele and Uintah). Determining how well a district does in terms of graduation rates is not easily predicted by how much it spends per student, and more research ought to be done to determine how different districts allocate resources to achieve their outcomes. As always, knowing how funds are spent is helpful insight into possible good policy.

Conclusion

Graduation from high school is an important milestone for students that can have ripple effects in their lives. Policymakers and education leaders ought to be proud of the work they have done in improving the statewide graduation rate. At the same time, learning from districts that have performed better while also spending less might be a good place to find practices that help our students graduate.

Isabelle Steed contributed research to this article.

Insights: analysis, research, and informed commentary from Sutherland experts. For elected officials and public policy professionals.

  • Graduation rates are affected by a complex set of variables.

  • We ought to look at districts with high graduation rates, especially those with low per pupil spending, to find innovative ways to support graduation.

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