Texas Schools Project Researchers to Investigate Bond Funding, Student Outcomes

Isaac McFarlin

Dr. Isaac McFarlin Jr.

U.S. school districts regularly turn to bonds to fund building renovation and construction, classroom modernization and technology enhancements. Researchers at UT Dallas’ Texas Schools Project are investigating whether those investments pay off when it comes to student success.

“While we know a lot about how people and programs affect school outcomes, we know virtually nothing about how facilities enter the equation,” said Dr. Eric A. Hanushek, Texas Schools Project executive committee chair. “This research promises a rigorous study of the impact of capital expenditures on student performance.”

In Texas, 86 percent of voters approved $6.2 billion requested in May in school bond referendums, according to the Texas Association of School Business Officials.

Texas Schools Project research associate Dr. Isaac McFarlin Jr. is the principal investigator for the project.

“Billions of dollars are spent annually to construct new schools, and to repair and upgrade existing ones,” said McFarlin, who is based at the University of Michigan. “In 2008 alone, state and local governments spent more than $66 billion to improve the overall quality of school facilities, and another $400 billion is owed in school improvement and construction bond debt.”

The study sample consists of Texas’ 5.5 million K-12 public school students from more than 820 school districts that held school bond elections between 1997 and 2009. Researchers will determine:

  • How school districts allocate these investments across individual campuses.
  • Whether these investments improve the condition of school facilities.
  • How the investments affect student success, including students’ test scores, attendance, disciplinary actions and high school graduation rates.

“Because these investments can indirectly affect student progress through critical channels such as teacher working conditions, we’ll also evaluate the significance of facility spending on reducing instructor turnover,” McFarlin said.

Dr. Rodney Andrews, director of the Texas Schools Project and UT Dallas assistant professor of economics, said the study will take advantage of the large repository of individual-level, administrative records available through the UT Dallas Education Research Center (ERC), housed at the Texas Schools Project.

The Texas Schools Project study is supported by a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. McFarlin is collaborating with Dr. Kevin M. Stange of the University of Michigan and Dr. Paco Martorell of the University of California, Davis.

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“This project is one example of the serious research taking place at the Texas Schools Project that commanded substantial funding,” Andrews said. “These researchers are from well-established, Tier One universities, and they are willing to invest their time and resources to conduct research here at UT Dallas. I hope that this project generates interest among UT Dallas researchers and students to take advantage of the opportunities available at the Texas Schools Project.”

TSP Conducting Research for State Agencies

Dr. Rodney Andrews

The Texas Schools Project recently received two grants from state agencies for research using data from the UT Dallas Education Research Center (ERC).

“These projects are a direct example of how the Texas Schools Project and the Education Research Center can benefit the state of Texas,” said Dr. Rodney Andrews, director of the Texas Schools Project. “The TSP is supplying these agencies with information that will directly impact Texas students and their futures.”

A $75,000 award from the Texas Education Agency funded a study mandated by the Texas Legislature to investigate prospects for realizing efficiencies by consolidating school districts in several large metropolitan areas in Texas.

The study found that while school district consolidation among the very small school districts could result in cost savings, the consolidation of the large metropolitan area districts would likely increase costs, said Greg Branch, deputy director of the Texas Schools Project, which oversaw the research project.

Dr. Lori L. Taylor of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University conducted the research.

“In managing the delivery of this study, the TSP demonstrated its capacity to very effectively bring together the specialized expertise and data needed to inform policy decisions about important questions facing the state with timely and cogent analyses through its operation of the ERC and its highly qualified network of associated researchers and partners,” Branch said.

The Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts awarded the TSP $85,000 to continue its involvement in the Financial Allocation Study for Texas — a continuation of a contract that originated with a 2009 mandate from the Legislature.

The study looks at academic, financial and demographic data and identifies districts and campuses that produce high academic achievement while maintaining cost-effective operations. The TSP provided student data for analyses of student performance.

Dr. Kurt Beron, a UT Dallas professor of economics and public policy, and Dan O’Brien, UT Dallas economics lecturer, worked with comptroller staff to develop new academic outcome measures based on scores from standardized tests.

“The analyses themselves are statistically complicated and take into account the millions of students in Texas public schools,” Beron said. “However, I believe the summary is understandable and useful for parents, teachers, school districts and those interested in education-policy.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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