August 18, 2008 1:52PM

Unless We Start Busing Kids to Mars…

We’ve all been told that school districts around the country are feeling the pinch from higher fuel costs. What’s never mentioned is that districts are supposedly suffering budget crunches despite spending more than twice as much – in real, inflation‐​adjusted dollars – as they did in 1970.

According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, districts spent an average of $5,247 per pupil in 1970 (in 2008 dollars). Today, the average is about $12,000. How is it possible that districts could have trouble covering higher gas prices when they have an extra $6,500 to spend per pupil? One reason is that the public school bureaucracy has been doing what bureaucracies do best: growing. Since 1970, total public school employment has nearly doubled to over 6.1 million people, while total enrollment has increased by less than 9 percent. It is to support this army of new public school employees that taxpayers are being asked for more and more funding each year. If the public schools were to return to the student/​staff ratio they had in 1970, they would have an extra $100 billion per year with which to fill the tanks of the nation’s school buses. And unless we start busing kids to Mars, that should probably cover it.

Of course, taxpayers might be willing to foot this lavish bill if the smaller class sizes and larger bureaucracies of recent years had led to improved student outcomes. They haven’t. Students at the end of high school score no better in reading and math today than they did in 1970, according to the Long Term Trends tests administered as part of the National Assessment of Education Progress. In science, their scores today are lower.