K-12 Spending: more, More, MORE!

Education spending.  More is better, right?

For years we have heard reports that teachers are forced to buy paper and supplies out of their own pockets, that some teachers qualify for food stamps, and that there have been “draconian cuts” to K-12 education budgets for decades.  Stories of the heartless underfunding of education are delivered with emotion and indignation, but seldom with statistical validation.

As student scores, college readiness and employability of graduates continue to decline across the U.S., the mantra of educators and progressives increases in volume and pitch.  “More money.  Just give us more money.  All we need is MORE MONEY!”

Seattle Times Headline Ed Spending

At a recent conference on school choice presented by the Franklin Center, Dr. Ben Scafidi shredded many of the myths about American taxpayers short-shrifting students.

Scafidi, director of the Economics of Education Policy Center at Georgia College and State University, said spending per student continues to increase sharply, studies prove that student achievement does not rise as a result of more spending, and there is no evidence that students are any harder to teach than they ever were due to non-school influences.

The most compelling finding of Scafidi’s 2012 study titled “The School Staffing Surge – Decades of Employment Growth in America’s Public Schools is this:

From 1950 to 2009 the number of students increased by 98%.  The number of teachers in public schools increased by 252%.  Meanwhile the number of administrators and other school staff increased by 702%.

Scafidi said, “If from 1992 to 2012 our public schools had increased non-teacher staff at the same rate that it increased teaching staff, it would have freed up $26.5 billion per year in education funds.  That could translate to an $8500 raise for every teacher, or a huge reduction in taxes, or scholarships that would allow many students to attend the schools of their choice.”

Opponents of school choice contend that students who remain in traditional public schools are harmed when budget dollars follow students to private or charter schools.  But Scafidi points out that charter and private schools operate so much more efficiently than the traditional public schools that fixed costs for the existing schools (about 36%) can still be covered by available funds and the remaining students in those schools benefit by the reduced variable costs.

Clearly there is no direct equivalency between dollars spent per student and results.  Test scores, graduation rates, and college matriculation at the private and charter schools I visited in Washington, DC were nothing short of miraculous compared to those of the traditional DC public schools, despite spending less than half the amount per student.

In previous posts I have reported school budgets in rural Montana schools of $22,000 per student per year.  While many of these students are getting a great education, by no means are they twice as smart as their city-school peers.  The cost is merely a function of declining numbers of students versus increasing costs, largely spending required by federal and state regulations and not the local school board.

I have personally seen many aggregious examples of non-academic school spending.  One Montana school district with 350 high school students keeps a stable of five cruiser buses, most equipped with personal video players, for their athletic and extracurricular teams.  Schools so small they can only play six-man football travel 350 miles to games.  My local school district in South Carolina just spent $6 million on artificial turf.  That’s got to affect the cost per student, without really improving student outcomes, wouldn’t you say?

Voters and taxpayers: next time you hear educators and progressives hollering for “more, more, more money!” you might ask how the extra dollars will be spent and how will students benefit.  Better yet, demand that the dollars coming from your hard earned pay can go with each student to the school of his or her choice.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Rockin' On the Right Side

And when you ask ’em, “How much should we give?”
Ooh, they only answer “More! More! More!”, y’all
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaire’s son
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one!

Write a check to your school for $88,000?!

In my neck of the Montana woods, the annual cost to educate a K-12 student is over $11,000, which is about the state average.  Some nearby rural school districts spend $15,000 per student and one spends over $22,000 per kid per year.  (Data is available at the ‘Transparency in MT Schools’ website – thanks to the Montana Policy Institute).  This does not include the additional costs of government offices and personnel related to education.

Most people say we should spend more on education.  They aren’t specific about how much would be enough – $25,000 per student?  $50,000? $100,000?

Forgive my “old Bean Counter” instincts, but hearing these numbers makes me think:  If I live in this small Montana town where educating a student costs $22,000 per year, and I have four kids, do I have to write a check for $88,000 every August?

Now, I’m not going to tell any community or school board that they can’t spend that much, or more, if they are spending their own money.  The problem is, they aren’t.

For reference, Montana’s 2008 per capita income was under $35,000.  Most parents have no idea how much their schools spend, because they don’t write a check to the district — school funds come from somewhere else.

The costs are hidden.  Just like GRANTS.  Just like EMPLOYER PAID HEALTH INSURANCE and MEDICAID.  Just like pretty much ALL GOVERNMENT SPENDING.

It’s so easy to spend somebody else’s money.  The trouble is, as Margaret Thatcher famously said, “You eventually run out of other people’s money.”  She’s right.  We are out, and are now having to borrow and print the money we spend.

I’m not an anarchist – I know that there are important things that are better done collectively than individually.  And I’m not picking on Montana, our school spending pretty much mirrors the national average and test results are above average.  Much of the cost is mandated.

But I am a realist when it comes to budgets, and a believer in the miracle of the free market.  Gang, I’m sorry, we can’t keep spending more and more on education in this country, especially when our kids are not getting our money’s worth.

Many people just can’t get used to the idea of school vouchers, or school choice.  But look at it this way.  Let’s say you have three school kids.  Would you be ready and willing to write a check for $33,000 for the school year?  If you were able to write that check, would you be more demanding about what you are getting for your investment?

Now turn that scenario around.  Most people could not, or would not write that check.  So if instead you received a check from the government for $33,000, how would you spend it?

Would you spend it on the best education for your child that your money could buy?  For $33,000, would you perhaps stay at home and educate your own children?  Would you pay college tuition for your high-functioning senior instead of high school?

If one small-town school is your only choice, obviously that’s where your voucher goes.  You may choose to supplement it with your own money or contributions until it meets your standards.

Alternatives quickly spring up in the free market to supply any consumer demand.  Education is no different – why wouldn’t I buy the education product that is best for my family and student (quality, safety, value)?

Give me a million dollars and a hundred kids, and I’d sure like to give it a shot.  Bet I could hire some damn good teachers, and every graduate would be ready for financial independence and a productive career, or higher education.  There would be plenty of funds to transport, feed, and educate students at a level that is unattainable by the current system, along with a profit.

I recently heard a career public school educator remark, “the best math comprehension model I have ever seen is the one in place at Sylvan Learning Center.”

This is a deep discussion, with many questions (i.e. special education, extracurriculars, social issues, welfare kids), and this post is already too long.  But there are as many answers and ideas as there are questions – the free market has a way of finding solutions to consumer wants and needs.

I just want every parent to give some serious thought to the possibilities and potential of school choice, rather than dismiss it out-of-hand.  It’s time we take the chance.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Gonna do my very best and it ain’t no lie
If you put me to the test, if you let me try
Take a chance on me
(That’s all I ask of you honey)
Take a chance on me

Take A Chance On Me – ABBA