How well do Columbus area schools use tax dollars for education? Here are the ratings.

Muscogee County Public Education Center
Muscogee County Public Education Center

Columbus area taxpayers’ return on their investment in K-12 education received a mixed report of good and bad news in the state’s latest assessment.

The Financial Efficiency Star Rating for the Muscogee County School District remained at 3.5 stars on a 5-star scale in the Georgia Department of Education’s annual release of the statewide results.

Harris County’s rating dropped from 4 stars to 3.5 stars, and Chattahoochee County’s remained at 2 stars. An average star rating for the state isn’t calculated.

State law requires the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, in coordination with the education department, to measure the financial efficiency of the state’s public schools and districts based on a five-star rating system.

A three-year average of per-pupil spending is correlated with academic achievement, as expressed by the College and Career Ready Performance Index. The CCRPI summarizes on a 100-point scale the Georgia Milestones Assessment System standardized test scores and other factors related to the quality of the state’s public schools.

Muscogee County

MCSD’s rating of 3.5 stars is based on its three-year average CCRPI of 71.1 and its three-year per pupil expenditure average of $8,720.54 (39th percentile in the state). That puts MCSD (34,968 students) in first place among school districts serving the state’s second-tier cities. Here are the ratings for the others:

Bibb County (Macon, 26,436 students) remained at 2.5 stars, with a 64.5 CCRPI, and a $9,086.30 PPE (56th percentile in the state).

Chatham County (Savannah, 40,680 students) remained at 2 stars, with a 67.8 CCRPI and a $9,869.83 PPE (78th percentile in the state).

Richmond County (Augusta, 35,232 students) remained at 2.5 stars, with a 63.6 CCRPI and $8,831.65 PPE (42nd percentile in the state).

The state’s three-year average CCRPI isn’t calculated; it was 77.6 in 2018. The state’s three-year average PPE is $9,085.97.

“We are gratified that our district’s rating over time has consistently improved with us now earning a rating of 3.5 stars for the second consecutive year,” MCSD superintendent David Lewis told the Ledger-Enquirer via email. “There are some noted limitations with the state’s calculation, but we can be sure to attribute this success to the continued improvement on student performance metrics such as the graduation rate and College and Career Readiness Performance Index. We have also worked diligently to implement sound budgetary practices and efficiency measures. Most importantly, these results align with our district’s strategic anchors, describing how we make decisions ‘that benefit student achievement, are fiscally responsible with an eye on return on investment, invest in our stakeholders, and promote equity and access.’ ”

MCSD’s rating was 2 stars in the first year of the report and 2.5 stars in the second year.

Here are the latest ratings for each MCSD school:

Elementary schools

4.5 stars: Britt David, Mathews.

4 stars: Clubview, Eagle Ridge, Midland, North Columbus.

3.5 stars: Blanchard, Dimon, Double Churches.

3 stars: Gentian, Waddell, Wesley Heights.

2.5 stars: Dorothy Height, Georgetown, Hannan, Key, Lonnie Jackson, Reese Road, Rigdon Road, South Columbus, St. Marys Road, Wynnton.

2 stars: Allen, Downtown, Forrest Road, Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., River Road.

1.5 stars: Brewer, Davis, Dawson, Fox.

Middle schools

4 stars: Blackmon Road, Veterans Memorial.

3.5 stars: Aaron Cohn, Richards.

3 stars: Fort.

2.5 stars: Arnold, Eddy.

2 stars: Midland.

1.5 stars: Baker, Double Churches, East Columbus, Rothschild.

High schools

5 stars: Columbus.

4.5 stars: Northside.

4 stars: Carver, Early College, Hardaway, Shaw.

3.5 stars: Kendrick.

2.5 stars: Spencer.

2 stars: Jordan.

Not rated

Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts didn’t receive a rating because, being in the middle of its second year of operation, it has only one full year of data available.

Harris County

The rating of 3.5 stars for the Harris County School District (5,364 students) is based on a three-year average CCRPI of 79.8 and a three-year average per pupil expenditure of $8,624.34 (33rd percentile in the state).

That’s a drop of 0.5 stars from the 4 stars last year, when HCSD’s three-year average CCRPI was 81.4 and its three-year average PPE was $8,329.81 (33rd percentile in the state).

HCSD superintendent Roger Couch told the L-E via email, “In reviewing the three-year trend prior to this school year, it appears that an increase in expenditures is inversely paired with a system-level decrease in CCRPI scores.”

Couch added, “There are many facets to a strong school and a strong school district. Although this is an important measure, it does not reflect the totality of success.”

Couch praised the “individual schools that achieved strong academic success with good use of financial efficiency.”

The ratings for HCSD’s schools are:

4.5 stars: Harris County High.

4 stars: Creekside (grades 5-6).

3.5 stars: New Mountain Hill Elementary and Pine Ridge Elementary.

3 stars: Harris County Carver Middle and Mulberry Creek Elementary.

1.5 stars: Park Elementary.

Chattahoochee County

The rating of 2 stars for the Chattahoochee County School District (959 students) is based on a three-year average CCRPI of 75.3 and a three-year average per pupil expenditure of $10,167.97 (82nd percentile in the state).

Among the district’s three schools, the high school has the highest rating with 3 stars; the middle school and the elementary school have 2 stars.

ChattCo superintendent David McCurry didn’t respond to the L-E’s query before deadline.

Criticism of the rating system

In an interview with the Macon Telegraph, Stephen Owens, senior policy analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute called the rating system “a combination of problematic formulas squeezed into 5 stars.”

“It is not helpful at all in understanding how efficient a school is,” Owens said. “Apples to apples comparison is impossible.”

For example, the extra money schools receive to educate students with a disability decreases the financial efficiency rating for schools with a larger-than-average proportion of such students, Owens said.

“So, you’re getting like punished if you’re serving a group of kids that already cost more to get to the same level,” Owens said.

According to the 2018 CCRPI report, the percentage of students with a disability is 16.8 in Muscogee, 11.8 in Harris and 16.3 and Chattahoochee. The state average is 13 percent.

On the school level, in which the state’s report uses only two years worth of data instead of the three years on the district level, a prime example of Owens’ point is Double Churches Middle School and Jordan Vocational High School.

They contain the district’s autism centers for students in those grades. So the percentage of students with a disability at those schools is nearly twice the state average (24.2 at Double Churches and 25.3 at Jordan).

Double Churches’ two-year average CCRPI is 64.5, and its two-year average PPE is $10,800.91 (81st percentile in the state), producing a rating of 1.5 stars. Jordan’s two-year average CCRPI is 63.1, and its two-year average PPE is $10,766.31 (80th percentile in the state), producing a rating of 2 stars.

On the flip side, Columbus High — the only local school with a 5-star rating — has 1.6 percent of its students with a disability, a two-year average CCRPI of 98.2 and a two-year average PPE of $7,220.84 (2nd percentile in the state).

The ratings “hide more than they show,” Owens said. He suggested the state might benefit from “hiring a private consultant to do a true cost-effectiveness analysis.”

The Ledger-Enquirer asked Lewis and Couch for their opinion of Owens’ assertion.

On behalf of Lewis, MCSD communications director Mercedes Parham said via email, “I believe the statement ‘There are some noted limitations with the state’s calculation’ addresses your note from the Macon Telegraph.”

Couch said, “Obviously, there are innumerable factors that influence the overall efficiency of a school district. Although a star rating can be a general indicator related to expenditures and achievement, the complexities of the issues challenging today’s schools cannot be measured by a simple formula.”

State education department spokeswoman Meghan Frick told The Telegraph via email, “State law specifically requires a one to five-star financial efficiency rating for every district and school. As it stands, we don’t have the authority or allocations” to address Owens’ concerns.

This release of the Financial Efficiency Star Ratings complete the state’s reporting of the mandated accountability measures for the 2017-18 school year. The Ledger-Enquirer previously reported local results of the Georgia Milestones test scores, the graduation rates, the CCRPI scores, the SAT scores, the ACT scores, the Title I Distinguished School awards, the Student Growth Percentile awards and the School Climate Star Ratings.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.