School Reformers Should Try to Make Public Schools Cheaper, Not Just Better

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 21 2014 1:59 PM

$26,000 per Student?

School reformers should try to make public schools cheaper, not just better.

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In fairness, Newark’s per pupil spending is unusually high. The K-12 average for the United States in 2010 was $11,826. That is 39 percent higher than the average per pupil spending in the world’s rich democracies, and it is second only to Switzerland. Though American students don’t perform terribly well in math, reading, and science compared with students in other rich democracies, American schools know how to spend. As of 2011, the U.S. spent $550 billion on K-12 public schools. This masks enormous variation across states. New York state, for example, spent $18,618 per pupil in 2010 while Utah spent $6,064. To some extent, this reflects differences in the cost of living, but the cost of living isn’t three times as high in Oswego, New York, as it is in St. George, Utah. Is New York state’s spending buying better results?

One crude way to answer this question is to consider how New York state students fare on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. When we compare the average math scores of fourth-graders who are eligible for the national school lunch program, we find that poor kids in New York state score 231 while poor kids in Utah score 233. This is hardly a slam-dunk case. Kids in New York state and kids in Utah are different in all kinds of ways that go beyond income. But are they “we have no choice but to spend three times as much” different?

Or consider Milwaukee, which has had a system of school vouchers in place for several years. In 2012, 57 percent of voucher students scored proficient or higher in reading on a statewide standardized test while the same was true of 60 percent of Milwaukee Public School students. Score one for traditional public schools! The math results were similar: 41 percent of voucher students reached proficiency while 50 percent of their MPS peers cleared the same bar. So was this a clear case of public school superiority? Not quite. It turns out that while MPS spent an average of $9,812 per student, the voucher program spent $7,670 per student. This partly reflects the fact that voucher schools are often more bare bones than local public schools. But the voucher schools also did a much better job of getting their students to graduate. Though Milwaukee’s voucher schools are far from perfect, they appear to be doing something right, starting with the fact that they’re using public dollars more efficiently. (Update, May 21, 2014: Here is a more rigorous take on how Milwaukee's voucher schools stack up against its public schools.)

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Calling for higher spending is an easy way to signal that you care about The Children. Yet there is very little reason to believe that spending more leads to better results. Though per-pupil spending in the United States has doubled since 1983 in inflation-adjusted terms, educational outcomes have remained stagnant. What does make a difference is allowing new educational models to flourish. Instead of top-down “reform” of the kind that Cory Booker and Chris Christie championed in Newark, America’s school districts need to “relinquish” their power over how schools are run day to day, as Neerav Kingsland, the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, has argued. Over the course of six years, New Orleans cut the gap in educational performance between its students and students across the state of Louisiana by 70 percent. The share of students attending failing schools fell from 78 percent to 40 percent. All of this happened without a big funding boost. Rather, it was the result of the steady replacement of traditional public schools with innovative public charter schools, which found new ways to do more with less.

If you really care about public education, calling for more spending is exactly the wrong thing to do. Pouring more money into dysfunctional schools gives incompetent administrators the excuse they need to avoid trimming bureaucratic fat and shedding underutilized facilities and underperforming personnel. It spares them the need to focus on the essentials, or to rethink familiar models. The promise of constant spending increases is what keeps lousy schools lousy. When private businesses keep failing their customers year after year, they eventually go out of business. When public schools do the same, they dupe taxpayers, and the occasional tech billionaire, into forking over more money. If you really, really care about The Children, call for a system in which the most cost-effective schools expand while the least cost-effective schools shrink, and school leaders are given the freedom to figure out what works best for their teachers and their students.

Reihan Salam is a columnist for Slate.