When Money Doesn’t Get You Better Schools

One of the biggest considerations in determining where to buy a home is the quality of local schools, and no doubt, school districts love to tout their academic performance. Their newsletters are filled with stories of student achievement and parents respond accordingly, paying thousands of dollars extra in districts with reputations for giving children a leg up on the academic ladder.

But are schools in these districts performing as well as their reputations would suggest?

The answer is “not necessarily so,” according to a study by the Pacific Research Institute titled “Not as Good as You Think: Why Middle-Class Parents in Michigan Should Be Concerned about Their Local Public Schools.” The Mackinac Center for Public Policy reviewed the study and invited author Lance Izumi to present his work to Michigan lawmakers, media and interested parties.

The study looked at the 677 public schools in Michigan in which one-third or fewer of the students qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches under federal guidelines. (Researchers commonly use eligibility for lunch subsidies as a marker of socio-economic status.) Students from higher-income households tend to do better on standardized tests because they get more educational support at home.

Nearly half the schools in the study, or 47 percent, had at least one grade level of students with subpar performance. In these grades, fewer than half the students were proficient on state assessments.

To account for school performance alone, apart from any advantage it might get from financially well-off parents, the study used a technique called linear regression-line modeling. That technique allowed the study to show just where a school stacks up to its peers with similar populations and scores. 

Additionally, the study looked at how these schools performed on the National Assessment for Education Progress, considered the nation’s report card. Michigan’s reading scores at these higher-income schools were far below those of similar schools in other states, including Ohio. 

The study boosts the case for a universal tuition tax credit program in Michigan. By reimbursing families, businesses or relatives for public school alternatives, families would not have to wait years for their neighborhood public school to improve or for a charter school to open.