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

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May 21 2014 1:59 PM

$26,000 per Student?

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

Cory Booker and Mark Zuckerberg.
Instead of top-down “reform” of the kind that Cory Booker, with the help of Mark Zuckerberg, championed in Newark, America’s school districts need to “relinquish” their power over how schools are run day to day.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo (left) by Spencer Platt/Getty. Photo (right) by Justin Sullivan/Getty.

Say you were given $26,000 to educate a young kid for a year. Do you think you could put that money to good use? I do.

In most of the country, there are quite good private schools that would charge you substantially less for a year’s tuition, leaving you with plenty of extra money for field trips, academic enrichment programs, summer camp. Tuition at the average Catholic elementary school, for example, is $3,673, and it is $9,622 for a freshman in high school. To be sure, tuition tends to be higher at nonsectarian schools, but the average is nowhere near $26,000. There are rarefied schools in America’s big cities and boarding schools where tuition is substantially higher than $26,000, but that largely reflects the fact that those schools long to be highly exclusive status symbols.

Let’s leave aside this crazy notion that you’d just spend your $26,000 on private school tuition and a few extras for the kid in question. That’s too easy. Let’s instead imagine that you’re given $26,000 per student to educate 30 kids, or a classroom’s worth. If my math’s not off—and it very well could be, as I am a product of America’s public schools—you would have $780,000. Don’t you think you could hire a couple of pretty good teachers, two personal trainers, a chef, and a social worker for that much money—and have enough left over to rent a light and airy loft space in a typical American city? The rent might be cheaper still in a depressed inner-city neighborhood. If you decided to skimp on the personal trainers, you’d have more money to spend on high-tech gadgets and enriching experiences for your young charges. Lots of people would come up with lots of different ways to give their students an engaging learning experience. Yes, I’m making this sound much easier than it would be in practice. It takes a lot of experience to know which teachers you should hire, and to navigate the thicket of regulations designed to prevent amateurs like me from setting up fly-by-night schools.

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The reason I’m so fixated on this $26,000 figure is that in 2010, when Newark, New Jersey, became ground zero of the education reform movement, the local schools were spending more than $26,000 per student. That was the year Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged $100 million to back education reform efforts in Newark if the city raised another $100 million, a pledge that helped put then-Mayor Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie on the national radar. It’s admirable that Zuckerberg chose to devote this money to poor kids and not to buying an island off the coast of Central America and populating it with reanimated dinosaurs. But Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, points out the inconvenient fact that this $200 million cash infusion—Zuckerberg’s money plus the matching funds—would represent just a 4 percent increase in Newark’s annual public school spending over the course of its five-year payout.

An extra $40 million a year might have made a difference if Newark’s public schools were a well-oiled machine. That’s not the impression you get from Dale Russakoff’s sobering account of Newark’s school reform efforts in The New Yorker. Russakoff reports that there is one administrator for every six public school students in Newark, and clerks represent 30 percent of the central bureaucracy’s workforce. Despite this army of administrators, Russakoff observes that “payroll checks and student data were habitually late and inaccurate.” Given the enormous amount Newark was spending on clerks, and clerks’ clerks, is it obvious that Newark’s public schools needed bigger budgets to improve the quality of education?

Newark is a rough town. It has long been one of America’s poorest and most corrupt cities, and the problems plaguing its public schools are so egregious that one hesitates to treat it as a test case. Even if Newark’s public schools were run by crackerjack professionals, they’d face serious challenges. Unfortunately, its problems aren’t unique. Few of Newark’s children are raised in the kind of stable homes that offer a solid foundation for educational success, and that’s a phenomenon that’s increasingly common across the country.

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