More school money doesn't always mean higher test scores, academic experts say

ISSAQUAH, Wash. -- A spacious kitchen means a lot to Laurie Rodriguez; she knows what it’s like to have less.

“We had five of us crammed into a small three-bedroom apartment for three or four years,” Rodriguez said.

That’s because her family couldn’t afford a home right away in the Issaquah School DEistrict.

So determined to give their children the best education, Laurie and her husband did whatever it took to keep them in the district.

“The school district really gave us a lot of incentive to sticking around,” Rodriguez said.

The Issaquah School District is consistently on top for academic achievement in the state.

“We invest heavily on our teachers and professional development,” Superintendent Ron Thiele said.

By that statement, you may assume the district is rich.

“A lot of people have a misunderstanding that a wealthy community has a wealthy school system,” Thiele said.

Numbers Q13 News obtained from the state show what Thiele is talking about.

In the 2015 to 2016 fiscal years, Issaquah received about $10,869 per student when you add up local, state and federal dollars.

The other districts the same size are getting more per student.

Highline received $12,613 per student, Bellevue got $12,677, Everett got $12,072 and Bethel had $11,382 per student.

“We’ve maintained the lowest administrative overhead of any King County district,” Thiele said.

The state’s historic undertaking to fully fund public education sends billions more dollars into education with many poorer districts getting a boost.

But Issaquah’s success with less begs the question, does more money mean better test scores?

“It’s not just money that results in high test scores,” said Ohla Krupa, an assistant professor at Seattle University.

“You have to use the money right, that’s the important thing,” UW professor William Zumeta said.

Academic experts point to one thing in education that is priceless.

“The first thing is the social capital,” Zumeta said.

Social capital is the extra support kids get outside of the classroom, from parents, peers and the community.

But not all districts are equal.

“If I am not knowing where I am going to stay that night, where my next meal is coming from, that will be a distraction to the learning,” Kisa Hendrickson with Highline Public Schools said.

Highline Public Schools in Burien last year only had 28% of eighth-graders meeting standards in math and 43% in English language compared to Issaquah, where the majority of students met the standard.

But Highline says it’s not fair to be compared to Issaquah, where only 1 in 10 kids qualify for free and reduced lunch. Highline says 7 out of 10 students meet the requirements across the district.

“We do have some schools in the 90 percentages,” Hendrickson said.

They are facing extraordinary social challenges -- that’s why Zumeta says lawmakers need to treat districts equitably, not equally.

“We have a responsibility to serve all of our kids equitably; that just doesn’t mean equal, that means what they need,” Zumeta said

Highline may have some tough challenges but they are making progress. They’ve seen a 20% increase in the graduation rate in the past four years.

“That’s a huge increase. I know we collectively have worked really hard,” Hendrickson said.

Results, they say, will take more time and money for poorer districts.

But teachers can’t do it all.

Thiele says his district is blessed to have experienced teachers but he also says much of the district’s success is the parents who stay involved.

Parents like Rodriguez, the Issaquah mom, says she realizes not every parent can volunteer all the time, especially those working full time but she believes there are still things all parents can do to stay involved in the classroom.

“If everyone did a little, everybody wouldn’t have to do a lot,” Rodriguez said.