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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

National Education Research Line Built Around ODU Professor's Data

By Brendan O'Hallarn

The official term for it is "state fiscal effort."

This complex figure, which is the ratio of per-pupil funding in a state relative to its overall wealth, has been a research passion for Bill Owings for more than two decades.

Owings, professor of educational leadership in Old Dominion University's Darden College of Education, has compiled a massive database of 45 years of fiscal effort for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The National Education Finance Academy recognizes the value of his collection. At the NEFA annual conference in Jacksonville earlier this year, state fiscal effort was recognized as a new line of research in education finance. Owings transferred the database to NEFA, making it accessible to all researchers.

"This is one of those projects that has taken on a life of its own. It's exciting to consider the many places these data will be used," Owings said.

The state fiscal effort data are revealing, demonstrating the commitment of states to K-to-12 education as a share of their economic activity. Virginia has traditionally been in the bottom half in state fiscal effort for K-to-12 education, Owings said.

"This lets us know how much of a state's wealth is invested in education. With 45 data points (or years of tracking state fiscal effort), we are able to plot slopes for each state," Owings said.

Owings, a former high school principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent of schools, became interested in the connection between education spending and performance more than 30 years ago. He wondered why some poorer states such as West Virginia have traditionally dedicated a larger share of their total state wealth to education.

For researchers like Owings, the interesting findings emerge when state fiscal effort is correlated with other social outcomes.

"To date, we have found increased state fiscal effort for education over time associated with increases in per-capita income, employment rates, graduation rates, academic achievement on state tests and math scores," he said. "Increased state fiscal effort is also associated with decreases in juvenile incarceration rates, adult incarceration rates and dropout rates."

Owings has promised to update the database each year so it can be used by other education finance researchers. Twelve of his Ph.D. students have relied on the data to complete dissertations, including Jessica Ellison, a recent graduate of the Darden College of Education who won dissertation of the year from NEFA at the Jacksonville conference.

Her dissertation, "The relationship between state educational fiscal effort and state juvenile incarceration rates," was recognized for its timely contribution to education scholarship.

"I imagine we will see many more dissertations based on this data set in the years ahead," Owings said, adding that the only requirement for researchers is that they add their own findings to the database after their study is complete.

"What we have found is that when we look at states where fiscal effort is increasing over time, these other social outcomes are improving as well. We hope state fiscal effort continues to be a growing area of study in education finance," he said.

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