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By David W. Kirkpatrick (October 09, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us
There is a tendency to view what is as what was, what will be, or what must be. The public school system is a beneficiary of this tendency. To some degree this is desirable. If everything was constantly subject to revision, chaos could be the result. At the other extreme, unquestioning acceptance of what is can result in rigidity of society's institutions.
In 1845, with the emerging system only a decade old, per pupil costs in districts in New York State, such as Albany and New York City, ranged from $3.42, in Syracuse, to $9.94 in Troy. By 1930, the national per-pupil expenditure was $99. Because of the Great Depression, even that figure declined a bit by 1935. Still, even allowing for inflation and a dollar that was worth more 70 or 150 years ago, that's far from today's average $11,000 per pupil.
One result of the acceptance of the status quo in public education has been a never-ending increase in its costs, despite all the objections to it. Even allowing for many mitigating factors - inflation, increased enrollments, school consolidation, or whatever, by any standard the increases have been astronomical, with no end in sight.
Currently there are some 14,000 school districts, with considerable variation in size, wealth, demographics, expenditures, and other factors. One constant., however, is the universal demand for more money. If there is a school district that doesn't express this need its existence escapes us at the moment. When your local school districts next express a demand for more money note two other universals - 1. they won't tell you how much they are currently spending and, 2. they won't say how much they need to assure student achievement. Their rhetoric will likely consist of two generalities - 1. they don't have enough, and 2. they need more.
Let's consider an admittedly not typical, but nonetheless real, school district. Bridgehampton on New York's Long Island. It was said to be spending $24,593 per pupil in the 2000-2001 school year just in instructional costs for the typical student. That should be enough for anyone, right? Wrong. Only three years later, as reported in May of 2004, they were spending $45,090 per pupil. You might think that would do it. It didn't. Another three years later, by July of 2007, Newsday said per-pupil expenditures had skyrocketed to $71,326 per pupil.
Clearly this is a wealthy district, the Croesus of the Hamptons. But not everyone shared in the wealth. 54% of its students are minority, and 31% are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Despite the huge expense, and one teacher for every 3.7 students, and class sizes ranging from 5 to 12, students in the district scored below the state average on both the elementary and middle-school English and math Regents examination in the 2001-2 school year.
In brief, although the district is an unbelievable aberration in expenditures, it is all too representative in its inability to bring its students to even an average level of achievement.
Interestingly also, contrary to claims that poverty districts are low-spending districts, the new report on The Condition of Education 2008 (June) states that, in the latest year for which figures are available, 2004-05, "current expenditures per student...were highest in high-poverty districts." School districts such as those in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., whose students are urban, minority and low-income, are high spending, well above the national average of about $11,000. They, like Cleveland, Detroit, and many other urban districts, are seeing a constant outflow of students and general population as this seems to be only way that citizens can escape the crippling effect the public system is having on their children.
This is not to say that money makes no difference. But it should be clear that money, even in very large amounts, can't do it alone. So we must do more than look at expenditures. With thousands of districts spending anywhere from $6,000 or so per pupil to more than $70,000, where is money being spent at least relatively effectively? If the average of all districts is $11,000 per year, how do some get by on $6-7,000? Why do others need $15-20,000, or far more than that, yet get no better results.?
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"According to the U.S. Department of Education, per-pupil expenditures in US. public schools increased eightfold since the end of World War II...achievement...scores have remained mostly unchanged in the past 30 years..." Lori Drummer, "Myth Buster," Review of Education Myths by Jay P. Greene, p. 19, School Reform News, January 2006
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Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633