Commentary

Real Education Reform

By David F. Salisbury
This article originally appeared in the New York Sun on February 17, 2005.

The back-and-forth that resulted in Monday’s decision by New York state Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse was several years in coming, and included more twists than a Mobius Strip, but the issues were fairly straightforward.

Justice DeGrasse was asked if the level of funding for schools in New York City violates guarantees in the state constitution that every child will have “the opportunity for a sound, basic education.” If he accepted the ruling of a panel that the current level of funding was inadequate, he was then asked to decide who should make up the difference: city or state?

The judge decided that the current funding level violates the state constitution. He ruled that New York City and the New York State Legislature will have to put an additional $5.7 billion into the system every year, to be phased in over four years. But he left it up to the state Legislature to decide how the costs will be shared. In addition, city and state will have to provide $9.2 billion for school renovations and construction over the next five years.

In effect, the court has ruled that we should treat cancer with expensive snake oil. While the constitutional provision for a decent education is laudable, a court-mandated funding increase will do very little to advance this goal.

Well over 20 years of evidence shows that pouring more money into a dysfunctional system does not improve educational quality. Kansas City tried this approach in the late 1980s. Under court order, the Kansas City Metropolitan School District increased teacher pay, lowered the student-teacher ratio, built elaborate new school facilities, and purchased new books and class materials. Student achievement remained stagnant.

In New York City, funding for public education has more than tripled since 1982, rising to $14.8 billion from $3.8 billion. In terms of per-pupil spending, that’s an increase to $11,474 (for 2000-2001) from $4,165. If these massive increases haven’t improved city schools, further cash infusions aren’t likely to be effective.

In casting about for ways to deal with this financial train wreck, the Bloomberg and Pataki administrations should consider more potent medicine: genuine school choice.

A school choice program would allow more New York City children to attend private schools, which provide higher-quality education than most of the city’s underperforming public schools. According to the latest figures available, private schools also cost less on average than public schools.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that the average private elementary school tuition in America is less than $4,000 and the average private secondary school tuition is around $6,000. Public schools spend far more per student, so states could save money by allowing more children to attend less expensive private schools.

Private schools cost less, as a rule, because of smaller administrative bureaucracies. A 1989 study by the Manhattan Institute showed that New York City public schools had 6,000 administrators on the payroll while the city’s Catholic schools had only 25, even though parochial schools served about one-forth as many students. According to 1999 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, teachers comprise only 52.2% of all public-school personnel in America. In private schools, the percentage is above 80%.

Massive public school bureaucracies are a much more serious problem then a supposed lack of funding.

In fact, New York City already has the second-highest school spending level in the nation. Only Washington, D.C., spends more, but doesn’t get better results. That’s why the D.C. mayor, Anthony Williams, supported a new school-voucher program that gives children in his city up to $7,500 for tuition, transportation, and fees to attend local private schools.

The D.C. program enrolled over 1,000 children in private schools this school year. The $7,500 spent per student is far less than the $13,355 the district currently spends to educate a child in its public schools. Next year, the program will expand to almost 2,000 private school scholarships.

If New York City did the same thing, it could save nearly a half-billion dollars every year in education costs, assuming that at least 10% of the city’s 1.1 million public school students took the private option. If 20% made the jump to private schools, the city would save almost $1 billion a year. At the same time, many children would get a chance for a better education.

Choice programs have a further advantage: They force public school bureaucracies to compete. The fact that public schools could lose students and revenues when children leave for private schools would inspire improvements throughout the public system. As new private schools open to take advantage of the new regime, children would have more options, and the quality of education would improve for everyone.

Throwing billions of dollars at the New York City school system is not the answer. If the state of New York wants to help children, it should increase competition and choice among schools.

David F. Salisbury is the Director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute and coeditor of Educational Freedom In Urban America