American author Mark Twain made famous the following quote of uncertain British origin: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
This observation came to mind as I read an article in the June 23rd Globe Gazette, which reviewed a study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust examining how economic and revenue growth in each state has recovered from the Great Recession 10 years ago.
Specifically the article looked at K-12 education funding during that decade.
Pew’s analysis indicates Iowa’s funding has increased 27 percent over that time, second only to North Dakota, while the state is spending 5 percent more than it was before the recession when adjusted for inflation.
Total K-12 education spending for fiscal 2020 is nearly $3.3 billion, or 45 percent of the general fund budget, according to the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency.
Iowa House Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said those figures demonstrate the commitment Republicans have made to K-12 education.
Not surprisingly, some Democrats disagree.
“We didn’t do a good job for a long time, so those numbers don’t mean it’s sufficient,” said Rep. Ras Smith of Waterloo, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee.
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, who taught economics at Iowa State University, questions Pew’s numbers.
His analysis shows growth in per-pupil spending was only .09 percent from fiscal years 2008 to 2016, with a 2.24 percent decrease since Republicans took control of both chambers in 2016.
I’m no statistician and as such have no idea whose numbers—or whose take on the numbers—to believe.
I’m also not a parent, but with two nieces and a nephew still in K-12 and two sisters along with their spouses working as educators I hope we’re doing right by our schools.
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So how do we tell? Let’s look at some figures.
Based on enrollment in pre-K-12, standardized test scores and public high school graduation rate, U.S. News and World Report ranks Iowa 13th nationally, which rises to 9th with higher education factored in.
Education Week magazine, using a more complex formula analyzing student chance for success, school finance and K-12 achievement, ranks Iowa 19th nationally and awards a letter grade of C.
Using data compiled by the education advocacy organization EdBuild, NPR examined annual average teacher salaries for each state as of 2016.
Iowa ranked 23rd in terms of actual numbers but rose to 8th when results where adjusted for cost of living.
Based on this admittedly limited analysis it would seem Iowa has above average but not exceptional schools and good but not outstanding teacher pay.
On one hand it’s easy to argue we should settle for nothing less than the best.
Yet there is no guarantee increased funding would improve outcomes, and providing new dollars to education would necessarily divert resources either from elsewhere in government or from the private sector.
Whether doing so would be justifiable is more about political debate than statistical analysis.
So is Iowa dedicating enough resources to K-12 education?
Honestly, I have no idea. And I have the numbers to back that up.