Topic: Education and Child Policy

It’s Hard to Compete with ‘Free’

The Fordham Foundation has just released a new report documenting the closure of 1,300 Catholic schools since 1990 — shifting some 300,000 kids into the public sector at a cost to taxpayers of about $20 billion. 

It’s hard to compete when the other guy (read: state-run schools)  spends about twice as much per pupil but gives his service away for “free.”

A proper education tax credit program would level the financial playing field between government and independent schools, dramatically increasing parental choice and saving taxpayers a bundle in the process.

And wouldn’t it be nice if we gave parents the means to escape schools like this?

Florida Teachers vs. Poor Parents

As I blogged a couple of weeks ago, Florida’s largest public school employee union, the Florida Education Association, is threatening a lawsuit to kill that state’s scholarship program for poor kids. Why would they choose to go down this road, mined as it obviously is with the potential for bad publicity? 

I explain that today in an Orlando Sentinel op-ed, giving the FEA a little of the bad publicity it so richly deserves in the process.

New at Cato Unbound: Can the Schools Be Fixed?

In April of 1983, the Ronald Regan-appointed National Commission on Excellence in Education released a landmark study, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” which diagnosed the ills of American education and set forth a list of prescriptions for fixing what seemed to be flailing educational system. It’s been twenty-five years now since the report. So how are we doing? And what, if anything, should we be doing differently? These are the questions we’ll be asking in this month’s edition of Cato Unbound, Can the Schools Be Fixed?

This month’s lead essay comes from Richard Rothstein, a former national educational columnist for the New York Times and research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, who offers a fresh, critical assessment of “A Nation at Risk” and the lessons we can draw from its fate. The public schools aren’t as bad as many think, Rothstein argues, and the report oversold the importance of the education system for America’s economic competitiveness and success.

Today, Michael Strong, co-founder of FLOW, education entrepreneur, and former charter school principal, chimes in with a stirring brief for the freedom to innovate in education.

Stay tuned for contributions from Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who recently made waves with his article “School Choice Isn’t Enough,” and from Frederick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

If that’s not enough for all you education reform junkies, be sure to tune in to next week’s Cato forum on “Markets vs. Standards: Debating the Future of American Education.” You’ll learn something.

Census Bureau Misleads Media

Bureau of the Census press release issued on April Fool’s day (!) bore the title: “Public Schools Spent $9,138 Per Student in 2006.” Lots of media folks fell for their gag, including the Washington Times and the Examiner.

Here’s the joke: the Census Bureau’s own Excel file reports total spending in public schools for 2006 as $526,648,505,000 (sheet “1”, cell G9). It also reports total enrollment as 48,380,507 (sheet “18”, cell E8). Are you seeing anything hinky yet? Divide the first number by the second and you get $10,886that is total per pupil spending for US public schools during the 2005-2006 school year.

What gives? The headline number used by the Bureau was NOT total spending per pupil, it was only “current operating spending” per pupil – that means it excluded capital spending on building upgrades and new construction as well as interest on debt (see Table 8 of their .pdf report). The word “current” in this sense refers not to the period in which the data were collected but to the categories of spending encompassed.

The case of DC is even more egregious. The Census reported, and the media picked up, the “current expenditure figure of $13,466, but presented it as though it encompassed all spending. In fact, if you divide the Census’s own total DC spending figure by its own total enrollment figure, you get a total per pupil spending figure of $18,098 for Washington, DC in 2005-06

But even this figure is a misleading understatement of per pupil spending in district schools, because it lumps district schools together with (thriftier) charter schools. Take that into account and you can begin to see how total spending in district schools has ballooned to the $24,606 I reported yesterday.

If the Bureau of the Census wants to discharge its responsibility to serve the public with accurate, meaningful statistics, it should stop misleading the media with ambiguous language hooked to ”current” spending figures and explicitly give both “current” and total spending figures. It should also offer estimates of total spending at the time of their press releases, extrapolating from historical trends, because their data are always outdated by two or more years, and hence always understate spending at the present time.

The Real Cost of Public Schools

In yesterday’s Washington Post I pointed out that DC public schools are spending about $24,600 per pupil this school year – roughly $10,000 more than the average for area private schools. There wasn’t room to explain those estimates in the Post, so I provide the details here.

DC public schools receive funding from several sources: the District’s local operating budget, special supplementary operating funds from the DC City Council, capital funding for building improvements and construction, and the federal government. To arrive at the real total per pupil funding figure for the district, all of these funding sources must be added up, excluding funding aimed at charter schools or higher education, and the resulting total must be divided by the number of students enrolled. Here are those numbers, with sources:

The latest available version of the 2007-08 local operating budget for DC (.xls file) can be found on the website of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. The relevant line items for our purposes are:

DC Public Schools:                            $806,251,000
Teachers’ Retirement System:        $6,000,000
“State” Education Office:                 $28,753,000
Department of Education:                 $2,367,000

Before summing these up to get the local operating subtotal, we have to subtract inapplicable funds from the “State” Education Office item. About $5 million of that funding is for higher education programs, and the agency’s k-12 services cover charter schools as well as district schools. To account for this, I first subtract the $5 million and then pro-rate the remaining balance based on district schools’ share of local public school enrollment (.707), for an adjusted SEO value of $16.8 million. That brings the total local operating budget for district schools to: $831.4 million. [Note that the SEO was recently reorganized and renamed “the Office of the State Superintendent of Education,” but while some responsibilities have shifted from the district level to the new OSSE, bringing their funding with them, this reorganization does not change the overall combined operating budget for the two entities.]

Additionally, public school chancellor Michelle Rhee requested, and the DC City Council granted, $81 million in supplementary operating funding, as reported by the Washington Post.

Capital funding for 2007-08 is $218 million, down from $223 million last year, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

Federal funding for District of Columbia public schools (.xls), including charter schools, is $103 million according to the Department of Education’s website. Pro-rating this to exclude charter schools (a rough estimate that should understate federal funding received by district schools), we are left with $72.7 million. Under the Washington, DC school voucher program, however, DC public schools are granted an additional $13 million dollars annually (a “sweetener” added to the bill to ease its passage through the legislature), bringing the total up to: $85.7 million.

The grand total of DC public school funding for 2007-08 is thus $1.216 billion. Divide that by the OSSE’s official enrollment figure of 49,422 students, and you arrive at an estimated total per pupil spending figure of $24,606.

To estimate the total per pupil spending in DC area private schools, I began by entering the tuition data from the Washingtonian’s 2007-08 Guide to Private Schools into a spreadsheet, eliminating boarding-only and pre-school-only institutions. In schools that gave ranges of tuitions for ranges of grades from 1 through 12, I averaged the published tuitions to obtain a single figure for each school. For each school that published tuition ranges covering pre-K or K through the regular grades, I estimated a weighted average tuition that leaned more heavily on the high end of the tuition range. This was to avoid skewing the average tuition inadvertently downward by overweighting the kindergarten or pre-kindergarten tuition figures, which are sometimes (but not always) considerably lower than tuition for the regular grades.

Once I had average published tuition figures for all the schools, I adjusted them downwards to account for the fact that DC area schools offer tuition assistance that reduces the actual average tuition paid to about 89.4 percent of the average published tuition (according to a study by the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington). I then multiplied this real average tuition by 1.25 because in earlier research in Arizona I found that, on average, 20 percent of total private school funding comes from non-tuition sources (mainly parish subsidies and alumni donations). [This adjustment probably overstated total per pupil spending in DC private schools, because I had already eliminated from consideration all special subsidized tuition rates for members of the faith or members of the parish at religious schools, counting only the full tuitions charged to members of other religions.]

The resulting figures for private schools were:

Average tuition actually paid: $11,627
Median tuition actually paid: $10,043
Estimated average total per pupil spending: $14,534
Estimated median total per pupil spending: $12,534

So the average total per pupil spending in DC area private schools, some of the most elite private schools in the entire nation, is about $10,000 less than the comparable figure for DC public schools. The difference is about $12,000 when we consider the median total spending in private schools, because the average is skewed upward by a few grand institutions with lavish buildings set on forested acreage.

Despite their vastly higher spending, DC public schools are often in abysmal physical condition. If the bureaucracy cannot maintain its buildings with all these funds, and despite having caring and dedicated leadership, we should not be surprised that it fails at the more challenging task of offering a good education.

The real cost of this dysfunctional system is not measured in dollars and cents but in the hopes and futures it has destroyed. As I’ve said before, our inner-city school districts have become slaughterhouses of dreams. For America to live up to its meritocratic promises, all families must be afforded an escape from these schools, and offered the educational choice currently enjoyed only by the elites.

Dropouts. Starving for a Good Education

“Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will require all states to use one federal formula to calculate graduation and dropout rates,” reports the New York Times, as part of a campaign to keep more kids in school.

The idea that we can reduce the public school dropout rate simply by measuring it better is misguided. It’s like believing that the North Koreans could improve their economy by more accurately measuring the number of people who are starving. As with the North Korean economy, the problem with U.S. public schooling is that it is a monopoly that takes choice away from families, takes professional autonomy away from educators, and takes normal economic incentives away from everyone.

Meanwhile, there is evidence from a sophisticated nationwide study that inner city minority kids – those most at risk of dropping out – are more likely to graduate, more likely to get into college, and more likely to graduate from college if they attend private instead of public schools – and that’s true after controlling for differences in student and family background. Other small scale studies of the Milwaukee school voucher program show similar results.

We already know how to reduce the dropout rate: ensure that all families can easily afford to choose the public or private schools best suited to their children. Until that happens, expect to see millions of American kids continuing to starve for a real education.

Myth Dodger

Every Sunday, the Washington Post lets someone bust five myths about some public-policy matter. Most recently, the buster—or shall I say dodger—was Chester E. Finn Jr., President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, who addressed five contentious accusations about the No Child Left Behind Act. Why “dodger”? Because rather than directly address the myths, in most cases Finn offered either tangential, deceptive, or just plain inaccurate responses. Let’s look at the five myths and Finn’s answers to them, but rather than go in the order that Finn listed the myths, let’s work from the smallest dodge to the largest.

Least-dodged myth: We begin at the end of Finn’s list, with Finn attacking the notion that “certified teachers are better than non-certified teachers.” Finn argues that “there’s no solid evidence that state teacher certification ensures classroom effectiveness,” and here he’s right on the money. In fact, I wrote the same thing just a few weeks ago.

Getting a little dodgier: In his second entry, Finn disputes the assertion that “No Child Left Behind is egregiously underfunded.” Here he rightly takes issue with constant complaints that NCLB is underfunded because Washington has never spent the full amount authorized under the law. 100 percent of an authorized amount is almost never spent under any law, and Finn correctly points out that “viewed that way, nearly everything born in Washington is underfunded.”

Where Finn runs into trouble is that he fails to directly address another common underfunding complaint: NCLB requires states and districts to do things—write and implement new tests, produce report cards, comply with lots of new rules and regulations—without supplying sufficient funds to pay for them. Finn logically points out that public schools in the U.S. spend nearly $10,000 per-pupil (though it’s more like $11,500 and counting), so they have plenty of money to implement new things, but to directly bust the myth it’s necessary to show that NCLB pays for what it requires.

Mid-way dodge: The third myth Finn addresses is that “setting academic standards will fix U.S. schools.” Finn is a proponent of national standards, so it’s no surprise that he finesses this myth by acknowledging that NCLB encourages states to set low standards while simultaneously suggesting that standards-based reforms can work if “good standards” are in place.

Finn is right about NCLB’s perverse incentives—if schools and states don’t make progress toward 100-percent “proficiency” they are punished, but states define proficiency for themselves—however, its a big leap to imply that government schools will ever put “good standards” in place. Teachers, school administrators, and education bureaucrats who have a strong interest in low, easy-to-meet standards control education politics, which might be why only three states—Massachusetts, California and South Carolina—have standards Finn considers good, and two of these three might soon have their high standards go away.

The runner-up dodge: In the penultimate dodge—and the fourth myth attacked on his list—Finn addresses the belief that “standardized testing required by No Child Left Behind gets in the way of real learning.” Instead of arguing that NCLB’s standardized testing requirements truly don’t get in the way of real learning, Finn argues that if testing is “an honest measure of a solid curriculum” it doesn’t have to get in the way. But based on the “setting academic standards” myth discussed above, we know that states aren’t honestly measuring solid curricula. And then there’s what Finn himself has written: Because NCLB puts all the carrots, sticks, and tests on math and reading, it has pushed other important subjects dangerously close to the margins, most definitely jeopardizing “real learning.”

The Big Dodge: Finn started with his big dodge, and I’ll end with it. Despite all logic and evidence screaming that it is absolutely not a myth that “No Child Left Behind is an unprecedented extension of federal control over schools,” Finn says it is. Why? Because states don’t have to follow the law if they’ll just turn down federal money, and NCLB is really just the latest incarnation of the decades-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

First off, while states do “volunteer” to take federal money, their taxpayers have no choice but to pony the funds up in the first place, which means by following NCLB states are really just getting back hundreds-of-millions of their taxpayers’ dollars. And the notion that because NCLB is the latest permutation of ESEA it isn’t an unprecedented intrusion? Well, the original ESEA was only about 50 pages long, while NCLB occupies more than 600 pages! And the additional 550 sheets aren’t just filled with meaningless doodles or love notes; they contain scads of directives and programs heaped onto the law over decades of reauthorizations, including brand-new NCLB requirements for testing, teacher qualifications, “scientifically-based” reading curricula, etc. In other words, NCLB is absolutely an unprecedented extension of federal power, and no amount of myth-dodging can change that.