Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

Where Are Our Gold Medals?

One of the most revolting things that a politician can do is accept a hero’s accolades for passing a law that generously spends other people’s money. So I ask Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the other politicians honored for giving D.C. students taxpayer dollars, and the officials who run the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program, where’s my gold medal, and the gold medals for all the other federal taxpayers who actually fund the generous tuition grants for which politicians are being given such great adulation?

Bidding Adieu to No Child Left Behind?

Over the last few days there’s been a rash of stories about state legislators pushing to get out from under the No Child Left Behind Act.

In Arizona, the state’s House of Representatives yesterday approved by a voice vote a measure that would take the state out of NCLB’s standards-and-testing regime. A formal vote is expected as early as next week.

In Minnesota a day earlier, the state’s House K-12 Finance Committee passed an amendment to a supplemental budget bill that would pull the North Star State out of NCLB.

Finally, at the beginning of the month, the Virginia legislature passed a bill requiring the State Board of Education to recommend whether Virginia should withdraw from NCLB. It was a loud enough signal of revolt that yesterday U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings paid the Old Dominion State a visit and warned it not to drop out of her favorite law.

Unfortunately, though it might be uncomfortable to watch efforts to get states out of NCLB repeatedly percolating, the Secretary needn’t worry that too many states will actually break away. They just can’t seem to turn down the federal (read: taxpayer) money.

Few people in Virginia expect the State Board of Education to recommend turning down the roughly $364 million in federal education funds that the legislature itself didn’t have the courage to reject. In Minnesota, there’s good reason to believe the get-out-of-NCLB amendment won’t make it into law, lest roughly $200 million be sacrificed. Finally in Arizona, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne warned that “the problem is, we would lose over a half-billion dollars a year. And it would go to the schools that need it the most: the low-income schools.” Considering that Arizona’s amendment would only pull the state out if it reimbursed local districts for lost federal dollars, Horne is probably right.

There’s little question that many, if not most, states want to get free of the No Child Left Behind Act. Regrettably, there’s also little question that they’re unwilling to sacrifice hundreds of millions of dollars to do so.

Newt: Schools Are a ‘National Security Issue.’

Newt Gingrich gave a luncheon talk about education at the American Enterprise Institute today.  Among other things, he said he’d “argue with any conservative” about the role of the federal government with respect to education.  It’s a matter of national security, he said.  He called on the secretary of defense to give a speech every year on the state of our schools. 

Just the latest indication of the drift on the right.  Ronald Reagan promised to abolish the Department of Education.  In 1996, after the GOP captured the Congress, Bill Bennett and Lamar Alexander urged Congress to abolish the Department of Education.  Within a few years, the GOP was supporting Bill Clinton’s proposal to hire 100,000 teachers.  Then Bush came along with his “Leave No Child Behind” law, which expanded the role of the federal government further.  Now this. 

Will the GOP ticket be McCain-Gingrich? 

Teachers: “All Your Money Are Belong to Us”

The Georgia legislature is currently considering a scholarship donation tax credit program that would allow individuals and businesses to give money to non-profit scholarship granting organizations that make it easier for parents to afford independent schooling for their kids.

In arguing against the bill, the head of the state’s public school employee organization, Jeff Hubbard, had this to say: “Our opposition is [to] taking state funds, taxpayer income, and giving it over to private schools.”

Umm…. The thing is, state funds and taxpayer income are not interchangeable terms, however much public school employee organizations might wish them to be. You see, you aren’t entitled to all taxpayer income – or even to all state funds – but just to those funds appropriated by the state in taxes and then allocated to the business of running public schools. When taxpayers claim a tax credit for a donation to help low income kids, no money ever enters the state’s coffers. So you see, these are in fact private funds.

For a good discussion of all this, see the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling in Kotterman v. Killian (.pdf), upholding that state’s scholarship donation tax credit program, in part, on the grounds that the donated funds are not state money.