Saturday, June 12, 2010

Public ed costlier than you think

We've been treated to hand-wringing all spring over the new school budgets for 2011, which are supposedly inadequate, underfunded and unacceptable. School district officials and politicians claim it's curtains for high-quality public education in Virginia.

However, what you think you know about K-12 education spending is wrong. We're not spending too little, we're spending too much.

I'd like you to guess how much we spend per child in the city of Charlottesville public schools and then in the Commonwealth of Virginia overall.

Have the number in your head? How does it match with the real numbers? In 2009, Charlottesville spent $16,200 per student, or $324,000 per classroom of 20 students, according to state data. And across Virginia we spent on average more than $13,000 to educate one child for the school year.

Don't feel silly if you guessed far lower than the real figure. According to a December 2009 poll of Virginians by the Friedman Foundation, nearly half of the respondents thought we spend $6,000 or less to educate a child each year. About one in five people thought we spend less than $3,000. Only 6 percent of the public guessed the correct spending range.

It's so simple as to seem trivial. To get control of a budget, you need to know how much you make, how much you spend, and what you're spending for.

We know that K-12 education is the biggest single cost to state and local governments. And yet, most citizens and politicians have little or no idea how much we are spend-ing on education at a per-pupil level.

American taxpayers spend around $600 billion per year on K-12 public education. A sobering 27 cents of every tax dollar collected at the state or local level is consumed by the government-run K-12 education system, compared to only 8 cents for Medicaid.

In Virginia, 29 cents out of every state or local tax dollar collected is spent on public K-12 education. In the seven years between 2002 and 2009, per-pupil spending in Virginia increased 44 percent according to state data. Even after correcting for inflation, it increased by 21 percent for that period.

Also, these figures leave out a large but completely unknown amount of capital expenses and debt payments that cities and counties spend on behalf of public schools but which never make it onto the school district's books or into the state's accounting.

Education spending is the single most serious burden on state and local budgets. And since runaway education spending is a major cause of our state and local budget problems, it's the best place to look for serious savings as the current fiscal crisis continues to unfold.

However, school district officials and many politicians aren't upfront about the kinds of resources we devote to education. And without a clear idea of spending levels in public and private schools, it's hard for the public and policymakers to know whether our current system is cost-effective or to assess the fiscal impact of expanding families' options with private school choice programs.

Based on federal data, we estimate the typical private school in Virginia charges just under $7,000 per student per year, and many far less than that. Government schools, at $13,000, spend a whop-ping 88 percent more.

Private school choice programs, in other words, aren't just a proven way to increase student achievement. They are a great way to save a huge amount of money.

In Florida, for instance, the state's education tax credit program that funds private school choice saves huge sums every year. The state gains $1.49 in savings for every $1 it loses in tax revenue according to a 2008 fiscal impact analysis by the government's Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability. That's one reason almost every Republican, 42 percent of Democrats and more than half of the black caucus voted for a dramatic expansion of the education tax credit program.

We spend more than enough on K-12 education in Virginia. It's just not being spent effectively. Virginia's children, families and taxpayers deserve a better, more efficient system of education.


Four excellent ideas on education, but how do we make them happen?

The requirement for innovation in order to drive U.S. economic growth -- and the tensions this creates -- is something I believe is central to our political debates in ways that are not always well articulated.

Grover J. Whitehurst has authored a Brookings piece on the requirement for innovation in the education sector, and the barriers to the needed reforms. In it, he makes four excellent recommendations:

1. Choose K-12 curricula based on evidence of effectiveness.

2. Evaluate teachers in ways that meaningfully differentiate levels of performance.

3. Accredit online education providers so they can compete with traditional schools across district and state lines.

4. Provide the public with information that will allow comparison of the labor-market outcomes and price of individual post-secondary degree and certificate programs.

Items 3 and 4 read like elements of a nearly libertarian manifesto. (Item 1 reads as motherhood and apple pie, unless you know the background, which is that Whitehurst, while director of the Institute for Education Sciences inside the U.S. Department of Education, pushed hard and somewhat successfully for a sustainable commitment to rigorous program evaluation anchored by randomized experiments.)

Here is his opening paragraph on the barriers to reform:
Our present education system is structured in a way that discourages the innovation necessary for the United States to regain education leadership. K-12 education is delivered largely through a highly regulated public monopoly. Outputs such as high school graduation rates and student performance on standardized assessments are carefully measured and publicly available, but mechanisms that would allow these outputs to drive innovation and reform are missing or blocked. For example, many large urban districts and some states are now able to measure the effectiveness of individual teachers by assessing the annual academic growth of students in their classes. Huge differences in teacher effectiveness are evident, but collective bargaining agreements or state laws prevent most school district administrators from using that information in tenure or salary decisions.

It is striking how far thoughtful, mainstream liberal wonk opinion has moved on the question of educational reform. What's unclear in the paper (though beyond its scope) is a political theory for how the interest groups who have a huge interest in preventing these reforms can be overcome. Whitehead proposes some specific federal laws and guidelines, but doesn't explain how to get a sufficient number of legislators to vote for these. It would be very difficult for Democrats to pass such laws, for obvious reasons.

When one side of the political divide loses its own ideological belief in a specific position and defends it based purely on interest-group power, this often creates an opportunityfor real change. It seems to me that education reform is ripening as political issue for Republicans, if they are willing to seize it, as they did welfare reform 20 years ago. Like welfare reform, this would probably imply being willing to engage on the policy detail, and to work with Democrats in order to create a bipartisan solution with staying power. It looks to me like there is lots of common ground to be found.


British version of Head Start under fire

Labour's flagship scheme to help poor toddlers and children must be scrapped, an influential think-tank said yesterday. Axeing the £10billion Sure Start network would do no harm to vulnerable youngsters and save taxpayers a huge amount of money, the Centre for Policy Studies said.

Analysts have said that Sure Start centres are often used by middle-class families for free childcare but fail to reach out to many of the poor they are meant to help. Some of the money saved could go to local councils to run programmes where there is real demand, the centre-Right think-tank said.

Its call goes far beyond Coalition government plans to scale down spending on the scheme, which is meant to help children in worse-off areas, particularly those from single-parent families, get a better education and stay out of trouble. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have pledged to take Sure Start back to its original purpose of early intervention in these children's lives.

The programme, launched by then-Chancellor Gordon Brown in 1999, quickly ballooned. There are now 3,500 Sure Start centres.

The CPS report said that Sure Start and other schemes under Labour's £5billion-a-year Children's Plan were bureaucratic, secretive and in thrall to fashionable theories of childcare. Its author, charity chief Tom Burkard, said they were 'flawed in concept and practice'. All showed 'a remarkable and unfounded confidence in the ability of the state to regulate the lives of families'.

CPS director Jill Kirby said that Sure Start spending was 'a classic example of the failings of big government: billions of pounds wasted in pursuit of central targets, based on untested ideas and packaged in jargon and bureaucracy.' She added: 'The sooner these grandiose plans are abandoned in favour of practical localised support to the most needy families the better.'

Last year the state spending watchdog, the Audit Commission, said Sure Start and similar schemes had failed to improve the health of toddlers in poorer areas.


No comments: