Flor⁠i⁠da’s ‘Moneyball’ approach on educa⁠t⁠⁠i⁠on spend⁠i⁠ng pay⁠i⁠ng off | Op⁠i⁠n⁠i⁠on

By: William Mattox / 2019



February 2, 2019

William Mattox

The 2019 legislative session is fast approaching – as is the 2019 Grapefruit Leaguespring 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.

William Mattox is the director of the Marshall Center for Education Options at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee.