Public Schools Cost More Than Americans Think

Imagine your business trying to decide whether to increase or decrease spending on marketing without knowing how much your company currently spends on marketing. Worse, imagine making that decision under the false impression that your company spends nearly half as much as it actually does. Sadly, that’s the state of the education funding debate nationwide, and the media often exacerbate the problem.

For example, in a news segment on Colorado’s NBC affiliate earlier this month, the reporter acts as though the amount of money spent per child in the public schools is a matter of political opinion to be legitimately debated rather than an empirical fact:

Like any good political debate, there are two sides to every single answer. When it comes to school funding, people have been wondering how much schools get to spend per student. That answer depends on who you ask.

The first person the reporter asked was Kathleen Gebhardt, the lead attorney in Colorado’s education adequacy lawsuit, who claimed that the public schools “receive an average of $6,474 per pupil in tax dollars.” How does that compare with other states? According to Gebhardt, “We’re in the top 10 for wealth and in the bottom 10 for funding our students.”

The reporter then gets a second opinion from Ben DeGrow, senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, who claimed that education funding is actually “closer to $10,000 per student.”

The media segment doesn’t give DeGrow an opportunity to explain how he reached that figure, instead turning to a laughing Gebhardt who chortles, “Oh, $10,000-a-year would be unimaginable for almost anybody in Colorado! It would be a nice problem to have, but it’s not one we currently have.”

So who was telling the truth? According to the reporter, no one can really know. He concludes the segment: “Like any good political debate, much of the issue will be addressed at the polls.”

After the segment aired, DeGrow explained how he and his counterpart arrived at their figures. Gebhardt’s figure didn’t account for all sources of tax revenue. In DeGrow’s words, “It is equivalent to counting only the primary breadwinner’s earnings as household income, even though about half as much more money comes in through a side job, home business and investment earnings.”

Moreover, the reporter was asking the wrong question. He wanted to know the amount of state tax dollars that public school districts receive per pupil. The more relevant question is what is actually spent per pupil, including local and federal sources of funding. Not surprisingly, that figure is even higher. According to a report from the Colorado Department of Education, Colorado’s average per-pupil expenditures total $12,181, nearly double the misleading figure given by Gebhardt.

But why mislead the public about how much public schools actually cost? The penultimate paragraph provides a clue:

On Election Day, voters in 31 school districts around the state will decide whether to raise property taxes to pump an additional $1 billion into the school system in the form of bond issues for buildings or mill levy overrides for operating budgets.

And what did voters decide?

Tuesday’s election saw voters in 29 Colorado schools districts approve 34 bond issues and operating revenue increases – plus one sales tax hike – worth just over $1 billion.

Would voters have decided as they did had they known how much money was actually spent per pupil? That’s impossible to know. But it’s also impossible to legitimately debate what the right level of public school funding should be when bureaucrats misinform the public about what public school funding currently is. A 2008 survey by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found that voters greatly underestimate how much public schools cost and that their funding preferences vary depending on whether they are accurately informed or not:

The average per-pupil spending estimate from respondents to the 2008 Education Next/PEPG survey was $4,231, and the median response was just $2,000; but for these respondents, local average spending per pupil at the time exceeded $10,000. When told how much the local schools were spending, support for increased spending dropped by 10 percentage points, from 61 percent to a bare majority of 51 percent.

Likewise, in PEPG’s 2011 survey, only 46% of informed respondents wanted to increase funding compared with 59% of uninformed (read: misinformed) respondents.

A part of the media’s job is looking at every claim with a gimlet eye. Sadly, this is far from the only case of the media replacing their self-proclaimed “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out” skepticism with “Rekab Street” credulity.