‘First, Assume I’m Right’

In a Saturday New York Times op-ed, Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress writes: “Drive around Chicago, Detroit or most other big cities and you’ll see dilapidated schools staffed largely by rookie teachers. The districts spend, say, $10,000 a child.”

Perhaps my memory is corrupted by nostalgia, but wasn’t there an era when the Times op-ed page discouraged policy commentary based on made-up, make-believe numbers?

As Miller might have discovered if he had researched the issue, Detroit is spending roughly $13,000 per pupil this school year, while Chicago spent roughly $14,000 in 2007-08. These figures can be calculated by reviewing readily available budget documents, summing all applicable expenditures, and dividing by enrollment. In Detroit, for instance, we sum FY09 “General Fund” expenditures (funds # 11, 13, 14, 22) with those of the Bond Redemption Fund (#31), and relevant items of the Food Service Fund (#25). Total expenditures come to roughly $1.24 billion while the official enrollment estimate for the school year is 96,194. The quotient of the two is just under $13k. FY08 data for Chicago yield a figure just above $14k.

Miller goes on to assert that “If you compare most poor, urban areas to their nearby affluent suburbs, the suburbs typically spend thousands of dollars more per pupil.” Do they? Let’s go Miller one better and compare ALL poor urban districts to ALL wealthy suburban districts. The National Center for Education Statistics publishes a table with these numbers (Table 37-2, page 172) in its most recent edition of the Condition of Education. The relevant numbers are (for the 2004-05 school year, in 2006-07 dollars):

Current per pupil spending, highest poverty city districts: $9,901
Current per pupil spending, lowest poverty suburban districts: $9,455

Had Miller checked his numbers, he would have discovered his assumptions to be not only mistaken but exactly backwards, and his policy prescription thus entirely groundless.

Had the New York Times checked his numbers, or simply asked him to check them, it might have done a better job of disguising how low it has sunk in recent years. Or was it always this bad?