From the Ed Stats Truth Squad

Not long ago, Donald Luskin headed-up something called the “Paul Krugman Truth Squad,” a band of analysts devoted to keeping New York Times columnist Paul Krugman honest. Well, after years of seeing education stories in the media rife with misleading, incomplete, or just plain wrong “facts,” it seems that in the tradition of Luskin’s crusaders its time for a truth squad to get to work in education. Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom accepts that challenge, and will from here-on out work to debunk bad education data whenever and wherever in the media we find it (assuming we’re not working on other, bigger things, that is).

We begin with this today’s Washington Post, where a story about per-pupil funding in the nation’s capital—and the need to boost it—featured a very dubious statistic:

The recommendation to spend $8,770 a child when the school year begins in August came from State Superintendent Deborah A. Gist. Now, $8,322 is spent for each student [italics added].

Could it be true that only $8,322 is spent per child in the District of Columbia? Surely it is higher than that!

Indeed it is. According to the latest numbers from the federal Digest of Education Statistics, in the 2002-03 school year $14,419 was spent per-pupil in Washington, DC, a figure 73 percent larger than the one given by the Post and one that’s almost certainly even higher today.

The $6,097 question, of course, is how these different figures were arrived at. Unfortunately, the Post’s reporter didn’t give any details about how the $8,322 figure was determined, so we can’t explain the huge difference with absolute certainty. We can, though, probably make a good guess.

The first likely difference is that the federal figure includes not just operating expenditures such as outlays for transportation and teacher salaries, but also capital expenditures to finance construction or renovation of school buildings. Unfortunately, education officials usually only cite per-pupil expenditures based on operating costs either because they reason that day-to-day expenditures are what really matter, or that it’s easier to cry that you need more money when you discount how much you already have. The federal number also includes federal money spent on DC schools, which is generally a large sum and is likely not included in the numbers used by the Post.

One need not even look at federal stats, though, to see that the per-pupil figure in the Post story is low-balled. One can just use the figures reported in the article, which put the current budget at $796 million (presumably not including federal funds to come) and the total enrollment in DCPS and DC charter schools at “more than 70,000.” If you divide the total enrollment by the total budget you get a per-pupil expenditure not of $8,332, but $11,371!

And we wonder why people think public education is underfunded?

The second diabolical education statistic (or, at least, diabolical assertion that should be backed by statistics) that we will dispatch today was, according to Inside Higher Ed, put forth last night by former U.S Secretary of Education, and current U.S. Senator, Lamar Alexander (R-TN). Speaking at the annual meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, Alexander reportedly declared that “a primary reason that tuition has been rising is that state funding has been flat.”

Uggh!

It’s simply not true that state spending on higher education has been flat while tuition has skyrocketed, nor does it follow that changes in state funding are driving tuition increases. Indeed, without even looking at the numbers, Alexander’s thesis makes little sense. For one thing, state expenditures would have very little bearing on tuition levels at private schools, which receive little state support, yet private school tuition has long been inflating. Moreover, if state spending truly were flat, then it follows from Alexander’s argument that public school tuition levels should also be flat, not rising precipitously.

Let’s go to the numbers. Again using data from the Digest of Education Statistics, we see that while total state appropriations for higher education have fluctuated, after adjusting for inflation they rose from about $46.8 billion in 1990-91 to $53.9 billion in 2003-04, a solid 15 percent increase. During that same time, prices at public four-year institutionsrose at a much faster rate, with the average real cost of tuition, room, and board rising from $6,831 to $10,674, or 56 percent, at public four-year institutions, and in-state tuition and fees rising from $2,460 to $4,587, or 86 percent.

Maybe Alexander meant that public expenditures per-pupil have been flat. If that were the case then he wouldn’t be wrong about state largesse. Using data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers, the trend line for inflation-adjusted, per-pupil public expenditures on higher education is roughly flat over the last 26 years, and would go downward between 1990 and 2003. (Figure 3 in the linked report.)  Alexander would be wrong, though, about declining state appropriations driving tuition increases. Eyeballing the inflation-adjusted expenditure line on the graph suggests that the decrease in spending per-pupil in that period is probably only about 10 percent, versus an 86 percent increase in in-state tuition and fees. And again, at least according to Inside Higher Ed, Alexander didn’t say “per-pupil,” making the assertion contained in the article dead wrong.

And so we see that just because a statistic is reported in the media doesn’t make it true. But the truth is out there.