Topic: Education and Child Policy

‘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?

‘Tis Better to Take

In a sign of how toweringly stacked government is against he who believes ‘tis wrong to steal, my place of residence offers taxpayer-subsidized classes on how to maximize your taxpayer subsidy for college. That’s right: The government subsidizes classes on subsidy-grubbing.

“Strategies are revealed on how to reposition assets to minimize the amount the government determines you can afford to pay,” proudly declares the description of “Paying for College without Going Broke” in the winter 2009 adult education catalog from the Alexandria (VA) City Public Schools. Students will “find out how to use the IRS to fund college through ‘tax scholarship’. This seminar will give you the tools and knowledge to meet your goals.’”

That’s right: If your goals include maximizing the amount that other people have to pay for you or yours to go to college, Alexandria has a fantastic deal for you! And don’t worry, only saints refrain from stealing these days, and who wants to be one of them?

I’m So Poor I Can Barely Fire My Raku Pottery!

With L.A. school officials constantly complaining about funding shortfalls, the State of California seemingly in perpetual financial crisis, and federal lawmakers assuming that school districts have poor facilities due to lack of funds, this little number really makes you think: Does any district really need a $232 million art-school building equipped with, among other things, “floor-to-ceiling windows with motorized blackout shades….an outdoor atrium for firing Japanese raku pottery” and “a conical library whose dazzling interior swirls upward to an off-center skylight”? Probably not, and it really makes it hard to keep tolerating the incessant public-schooling complaints about woeful underfunding. Neither the broad data (see Indicator B1), nor such anecdotal evidence as the far-too-mundanely named Central High School No. 9, support the claim.

At Least We’ll Get More of the Same…

The latest issue of The Economist praises president elect Obama’s pick of Arne Duncan to lead the department of education. In particular, it predicts that “Mr Duncan may restore the spirit of co-operation that helped pass NCLB in 2001.”

But bi-partisanship is not intrinsically desirable. It is only good when it results in good policies. NCLB has not proven itself a good policy. There are four nationally representative sources of information on academic outcomes over the last 6 to 10 years: America’s own National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and the international testing programs: PISA, PIRLS, and TIMSS. NAEP shows some gains since NCLB was passed, but they are, for the most part, smaller than those that occurred in the years immediately preceding the law. TIMSS shows gains in math over the past decade, but stagnation in science, and much of the math gain seems to have preceded NCLB – and we’re still just in the middle of the pack among the top 30 rich countries despite being the second highest spender among them. Both PISA and PIRLS show stagnation or decline across subjects and grades.

These lackluster results have come at an additional cost of perhaps $100 billion over our already world-leading per-pupil spending. I don’t understand why an “economist” would think more of this kind of bipartisanship desirable.

School Choice Saves Money and Children

State governments are facing declining tax revenues and increasing budgetary demands. So lawmakers should take note of a state report from Florida released today that concludes Florida is saving millions of dollars with school choice.

School choice is the only policy that means huge returns for state governments, school districts, taxpayers, and children all at the same time.

The Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability found that taxpayers saved about $39 million, close to 50 cents for ever dollar donated through Florida’s education tax credit program last year. The report concludes much more could be saved if politicians expand the program and give families more choice.

Florida’s education tax credit program allows businesses to take dollar-for-dollar tax credits on money they donate to scholarship organizations that help kids attend private schools. Instead of sending a portion of their tax bill to the state, businesses can choose to support alternative education options for needy children and save taxpayers a bundle as well.

This is one more in a long line of research showing that school choice saves money while savings kids.

Florida needs to expand their program and other states need to catch up with the seven that already have education tax credit programs.

Professorial Feeding Frenzy

Just as predicted, more and more ivory-tower sharks are gathering for the taxpayer bloodlet…er…stimulus. But what choice do they have? Even Harvard’s had to cut back:

Even holiday parties for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have been scaled back.

On Thursday, Harvard deans and administrators will gather in the faculty room in University Hall for one bash instead of two, normally held off-site. No spouses or other guests. Only wine, beer, soda; no hard liquor.

But the festivities will not entirely lose their glow. Harvard being Harvard, the faculty room is plush - adorned with crystal chandeliers, Oriental carpets, and marble busts and oil paintings of Harvard’s presidents and famous alumni. The mint-green walls are accented with Greek columns. Revelers will feast on puff pastries, canapes, and other hors d’oeuvres as a student plays seasonal music from the grand piano in the corner.