Commentary

When Schools Already Get so Much Money, Do They Need More?

By Benjamin Zycher
This article appeared in the Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1999.
The centerpiece of the Davis administration education reform program is—get ready for a shock—more money. Inflation-adjusted spending per pupil in California public K-12 education has increased 40% since 1980. Suffice it to say that actual performance has lagged far behind. Can anyone possibly believe that pouring more taxpayer largess down the throat of the education establishment will yield fundamental improvement?

Notwithstanding the (rising) California rank in spending (but not performance) among the 50 states and District of Columbia, what the establishment likes to obscure is the fact that total (federal, state and local) spending per California pupil was $ 6,883 last year. Consider a classroom with 27 students, the current average size in the state. That yields more than $ 185,000 per classroom. Suppose that salary and benefits for the teacher and aide add up to $ 90,000. Debt service (construction costs) is about $ 1,000 per classroom. Suppose that books and supplies are $ 1,000 per student, or $ 27,000 per class. Suppose that the library, maintenance, utilities and administrative costs are another $ 27,000 per classroom. Let us assume another $ 20,000 per classroom for computers, non-classroom activities and miscellaneous costs. Our total is $ 165,000 per class, leaving more than $ 20,000 remaining. What is happening to all this money?

California Education Secretary Gary Hart, an honest and thoughtful man, surely recognizes that the current system—a series of geographic monopolies entangled with a huge state bureaucracy, with an all-powerful teachers’ union and increasingly with the federal behemoth—is proficient at wasting taxpayer dollars and hiding perverse outcomes. He must know that more dollars will not change the fundamental incentives driving the system. And so a second feature of the current reform effort is a separate program rewarding schools that achieve improved performance. They will receive … more money. This ostensibly will create pressures for better teaching and the like. Except that a third feature of the reform program focuses on schools displaying worsening performance. They will get … more money. It is difficult to imagine that schools displaying unchanged outcomes will not be invited to the party.

Under still another program, teachers in schools showing improvement will receive … more money. I am happy to report that teachers performing poorly will not receive more money. Instead, they will get peer counseling, presumably in a fashion designed to enhance their self-esteem. Will any bad teachers be fired or have their salaries cut? Don’t bet on it; but do expect the emergence of a Lake Wobegon system of performance evaluation, in which all of the teachers will be “above average.”

The comedy highlight of the current reform effort is a proposal for “public service” as a requirement for high school graduation. Only the education establishment could view mandatory volunteerism as something serious. Such public service is attractive to the education establishment because it sounds lofty even as its dubious contribution to learning is hard to measure. And precisely what “public service” activities—the choices among which inevitably will be politicized—will qualify as acceptable? The establishment view is that student time spent in such public service is appropriate but additional academic testing is not because it would consume valuable class time.

By the way, under the current reform plan, good students also will get … money.

This is not serious institutional reform; this is tinkering designed to shovel more taxpayer dollars toward the unions and the bureaucrats. Because the California Constitution (under Proposition 98) prevents real per-pupil spending from ever falling, this reform program is an upward ratchet on the taxpayers, with little prospective improvement for students but with a hidden boomerang for all of us when the next recession reduces state tax revenue.

Real reform requires competition—full parental choice among public and private schools—so that parents can choose the schools best suited for their children.

In a recent talk, Hart mentioned, vaguely, increased competition only among public schools, a system that cannot work well because the public schools are part of a government cartel that regulates away real competition. That is why the Postal Service delivers poor service even though people who have a package to mail have the right to stand in line at any post office. College students, on the other hand, can choose among many public and private institutions, yielding a U.S. university system that is the envy of the world.

“Reform” taking the form of more money cannot work except in terms of increasing the establishment’s power and budgets. This will condemn many thousands of poor children to an inferior education and a bleak future. Hart delivered a talk that was unintentionally amusing, but the educational fate of those kids is no laughing matter.

Benjamin Zycher is an economist and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.