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School Budgets and Staffing
By David W. Kirkpatrick (October 16, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

 
         Last week's commentary noted that per-pupil expenditures for the United States' 14,000+ school districts range from $6-7,000 to more than $70,000 - a difference of roughly ten to one.  It is doubtful if any two districts have exactly the same budget, not only in total dollars, which may in some instance be close if not exact, but in the specifics of how a budget was determined  - how many teachers, teacher/pupil ratio, salary schedules, etc.
 
         This leads to at least two general conclusions: first, that there is no logic to the way money is raised and spent in the nation's public schools, and, two, that what determines how much money a district spends is directly related to what the district has available. That is, they spend what they can afford to spend.  With the national average per-pupil expenditures being about $11,000 per year, and disparities of ten-to-one, it is extremely difficult, and probably impossible, to find a district that, given additional money, does not increase its expenditures in some way.
 
         Despite nearly universal complaints about the costs of public education, the lack of knowledge regarding the specifics of such costs is also nearly universal.  For example, a 2006 survey found that citizens thought - guessed? -  per pupil expenses are about $4,.700 annually.  In fact, they were more than $8,000.
 
         Similarly, when asked what they thought the average teacher salary is the response was only about one-half of the correct amount.  If they are angry when they underestimate costs by 50% or more, imagine if they were aware of the realities.
 
         What should be of concern is why this misunderstanding exists.  Despite ongoing interest about public schools, and the fact that schools tend to be the major cost at the local level, it is because of the lack of attention to the details by the media.  Suppose, for example, you are interested in reports about your local schools where would you look in your local paper?  The answer on a typical day is the sports pages.  Not only are their regular reports there, it is not uncommon for an entire page, or a special section of several pages to be devoted to such topics.  In-depth reports of other aspects of the educational program are rare, if not nonexistent.
 
         And it is getting worse.  In 2008 the U.S. Department of Education reported that per-pupil expenditures in the nation  had increased eightfold in the 60 years since the end of World War II.  And those costs are in constant dollars, that is, adjusted for inflation.  Worse yet, while reliable data on student achievement is not available for the first 30 of those years, the introduction of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in the 1970s has indicated that the past 30 years has seen relatively stable scores despite the rapid and ongoing increase in expenditures.
 
         Thus the nation's public schools are better funded than ever before, and the United States is among the highest spending nations in financial support of its schools.
 
         Space does not permit full consideration of why this is so, but here are some factors:
 
         While this nation prides itself on its administrative know-how, as long ago as the 1960s it was reported that New York City's schools had more administrators than all of France, and New York State had more than all the nations in Western Europe.  As an individual example, I had personal knowledge of a school district in Pennsylvania which had more custodians/janitors on its staff than it had teachers.
 
         That was an extreme but symptomatic instance of unusual staffing of schools here.  The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which represents many developed nations, including the U.S., reported some years ago that a study of 19 industrialized nations found that the U.S. had the highest proportion of nonteaching staff.  In fact, teachers make up less than half the employees in U.S. public schools and, while 53% of school money was spent for teachers in the mid-60s, by the mid-1990s, that was down to 38%.

         So, whatever you may think of teacher salaries, that's not where most of your school tax money goes.
 
         Apparently this is not true in any other nation.

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         "In truth, the assumption that we best educate kids by herding them by age into classrooms in public buildings for nine months of the year, thirteen years in a row, rests on remarkably little scientific evidence."  Lewis M. Andrews, Ex. Dir, the Yankee Institute, p 20, School Reform News, October 2005

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Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633

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