Opinion

SLOAN | If only spending more on schools led to a better education

Author: Kelly Sloan - August 9, 2018 - Updated: August 8, 2018

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Kelly Sloan

Last November, voters in School District 51, over in Mesa County, approved a mill levy override which increased property taxes by something like $6.5 million annually for 10 years, ostensibly to pay for classroom improvements and instructional expenses otherwise denied by an emaciated local budget. Well now word comes that changes enacted by the district subsequent to the taxpayer’s plebiscitary generosity are resulting instead in $1.2 million in salary raises for the district’s administrators, and nine new administrator positions.

The district superintendent, Ken Haptonstall, wrote in an op-ed soon after the figure was reported that he was “dumfounded” by the revelation, a condition brought on by reliance on staff calculations which showed an increase of only $550,000.

I do not know Mr. Haptonstall, and as such am inclined to take him at his word; still the episode suggests at least two things: a) voters in Mesa County will be hard pressed to approve another education-related tax increase for the foreseeable future, and b) the fetish for throwing additional tax money at the public school system as an effort to improve education has systemic and predictable shortcomings.

The federal government now spends something on the order of $100 billion per year, an amount which grows annually, in an effort to improve educational outcomes – or at least achieve the same levels of educational proficiency that Americans had back before anyone had ever heard of federal education funding or a cabinet level Department of Education. And yet an analysis of the long-term assessment trends as compiled by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveals little, if any, improvement in student performance over the past several decades.

Nonetheless, much of the hew and cry emanating from those earnest voices which proclaim such saintly concern for the children’s future, and whom periodically grant themselves a day off to stomp around in red t-shirts for the Cause, clamors for little more than tossing yet more barrelsful of cash into a system that has been remarkable in its ability to misallocate taxpayer’s money.

The ascent of the teachers’ union bears some culpability for this, but the blame does not fall entirely on them. The problem is more structural in nature. Public education, whatever the altruistic intentions of many of its individual moving parts, is, after all, a monopolistic government bureaucracy, and such things feed off internal administration. In the absence of competitive pressures demanding organizational abstemiousness, any public institution is naturally induced to mushroom itself into leviathan.

To be sure, it would be a mistake to focus solely on administrative costs in passing judgement over a particular educational system. Indeed, administrative costs fluctuate among private and charter schools; Catholic schools, for instance, generally have low administrative costs, benefitting as they do from an existing and substantial organizational structure.

Some charters, on the other hand, sport significantly higher administrative costs per pupil, due to their small size; many such schools may only have a couple hundred students, but share similar maintenance, HR, and other administrative support requirements as schools with several hundred or even a thousand or more students, so the administrative cost is spread over fewer kids. Opponents of school choice, in fact, often point this out, bemoaning that the loss of students to non-public options would leave public institutions with fixed costs, but fewer per-student dollars.

Such fixations, however, distract from what ought to be the pursued goal – improvement in educational results. The fact is that statistically, students in private and charter schools perform better, graduate at higher rates, and go on to attain greater post-secondary success than their counterparts in the public system, whatever the administrative costs of their respective schools.

Real change in educational outcomes is not, therefore, dependent on simply ordering up another truckload or two of taxpayer-generated cash. Positive outcomes in performance (and ultimate student success) will only germinate when educational versatility is offered to all income brackets, and the same options granted to poor parents as are currently afforded only to those who are more well off.

But so long as the government retains its jealous monopoly over the education of the majority of the population, we ought not be surprised when the only solutions offered rely on further surrenders of tax dollars. Nor should we, like our superintendent in Mesa County, be dumbfounded when those dollars go to feeding the bureaucracy rather than the minds of students.

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also an energy and environmental policy fellow at Centennial Institute.