Education Beat Fails Economics

, Marsha Michaelis, Leave a comment

A recent survey of 400 registered voters in Washington shows that almost everyone has opinions about whether or not the state is spending enough on its K-12 public schools, but almost nobody knows how much is actually being spent.

Sixty percent of those asked felt public schools were under-funded . . . until they found out how much is being spent. Our state spends an average of more than $10,000 per pupil annually, but only 12 percent of respondents came within $2,000 of knowing that number. When asked if $10,000 per pupil each year seemed too high, too low, or just about right, 61 percent said it seemed either too high or just about right.

Responsible citizenship, especially on matters relating to the education of our children, requires more than simply having opinions and going to the polls on voting day. But even the most responsible citizens will have trouble finding the facts about K-12 public education spending in our state.

This is because the average person gets information about schools from a newspaper, and our state’s large newspapers aren’t reporting specifics when it comes to total education spending.

A recent analysis by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation discovered that out of a total of 489 education-related articles published in one year in three large regional newspapers (216 in the Seattle Times, 119 in the Columbian and 154 in the Spokesman-Review), not one mentioned the state’s average total per-pupil spending (or total spending, period) for K-12 schools. Only twelve articles mentioned specific portions of school funding.

Meanwhile, calls for more money from officials and staff within the state’s K-12 public school system are perpetual and loud. Members of the Washington Learns initiative (chaired by the governor) are likely going to recommend an education spending increase. The Washington Education Association (state teachers’ union) is threatening to sue if the Committee doesn’t recommend a big enough increase.

Are they right? Do our schools need more money?

Here are some basic facts and questions to help you decide.

First, Washington spent an average of $10,121 per student in 2004-05 (the most recent year for which data is available). That includes money from federal, state and local funds. It is the total cost to taxpayers for our K-12 public schools (from instructing students to building classrooms).

Second, average per-pupil spending increased an inflation adjusted 20 percent over the past ten years (1995-2005, based on IPD). Thus, the state is spending 20 percent more per pupil today than it spent ten years ago.

Third, answering the question of whether $10,121 is enough requires knowing the answers to other important questions, such as: Do we know the results we want from our public schools? Are dollars being spent in the most efficient and effective way possible to achieve those results?

In 2002, when former Governor Gary Locke asked state agencies to prioritize their spending and identify clear outcomes, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson refused to participate. In the most recent budget, Bergeson has just one “expected result” for annual expenditures that total $8.5 billion: “Develop and implement an improved K-12 education funding model, in partnership with the Legislature, school districts, and other education partners.”

That might be an acceptable priority if our public schools existed to spend money, but most people would say they exist to educate students.

Right now the majority of students in every grade tested fail at least one core subject. One out of three students fails to graduate from high school on time. More than half of those who do earn a diploma and go on to a community college must take remedial courses in the basics. Many of our best teachers and administrators are deeply frustrated and discouraged.

Is it possible we can do better?

We think so.

Imagine what we could achieve if we thought of public education as a goal (an educated public) rather than a particular kind of delivery system (state-operated schools). Imagine what $10,121 could buy if parents were allowed to spend it on the diverse educational options that best met the needs of each of their children.

These ideas are worth discussing, but first citizens must have access to comprehensive and unbiased facts. Only then will our discussion have substance. Only then will we begin to solve problems and expand opportunities.

Marsha Michaelis is the Director of the Education Reform Center of Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Washington state.