Opinion: Free Market Minute

Education Spending: Out of Control and On a Roll?

Correlation coefficient nostrums

Just this morning I overheard the cry “I need to totally redecorate this office,” come winging around the corner and past my office here at the Locke Foundation. What do public school teachers and my esteemed colleague at the JLF have in common? They both want the nicest surroundings possible in which to ply their trade. The difference? My office buddy will undoubtedly have to accomplish the sprucing up on private dollars, and I’ll be surprised if there aren’t some compromises involved. Public schools, on the other hand, have been much more reluctant to compromise for economy’s sake. On the state level, the education-shopping spree is rolling full tilt, but local districts are beginning to see things a little differently.

Everything, apparently, raises school costs: 1) higher steel and petroleum prices, 2) growing enrollment, 3) shrinking enrollment ( N&O archives, Dec. 19, 2004) 4) smaller schools (N&O archives, Feb. 28, 2005), and 5) extended programs below kindergarten and above 12th grade (N&O archives Feb. 7, 2005).

There is yet another reason to increase education spending, according to the Office of the Governor. A new survey, the 2004 NC report itself, that the 2004 teacher working conditions survey offers “scientific proof that teacher working conditions contribute to student achievement.” Based on this assertion, a number of new expenditures will be directed at schools and teachers, including a required leadership program for all new principals that includes a focus on teacher working conditions.

When we assume (or assert) that because two events occur in proximity to one another, the first event “caused” the second one, we commit the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy. Many people carry umbrellas in the rain, for example, but carrying an umbrella against the contingency of rain will not cause a downpour, no matter how regular the correlation. Correlation doesn’t prove causation, which is why we must avoid drawing unwarranted conclusions when we commit the “post hoc” fallacy.

The “working conditions” fire is being fueled at the national level as well. The National Education Association is calling for hard-line demands on the latest working conditions “issue,” IAQ — indoor air quality. Nicer conditions for teachers aren’t just amenities or a way to improve student performance. Teachers are being told that their workplaces, unless dramatically improved through IAQ monitoring and remediation, will expose them to mold, pesticides, diesel exhaust, particulates, and classroom overcrowding—and those are the relatively innocuous hazards. Even worse, the NEA warns teachers, if they don’t organize to demand better air quality, they could also be exposed to rat, bat, and pigeon droppings, landfill methane gas, antifreeze in school water, and (in Utah) uranium tailings. The “even more sinister hazard,” the NEA asserts, is the fear of losing one’s job while protesting potentially unhealthy air.

But North Carolina schools may finally be encountering that nemesis of all consumer wish lists: the budget constraint. Just as households do when spending objectives exceed income, counties are beginning to look at ways to contain spending. In Wake County, some school construction projects are being delayed or scaled back, and districts may be forced to use cheaper materials—like $2.00 per square foot vinyl tile with a 15-year lifespan, vs. $9.00 per square foot terrazzo with a 100-year life span—than desired. (Realistically, how many 100-year-old school buildings are still in use, or can be brought up to code—another discussion—today?) Even as national and state-level education interests seek to expand, at least some local districts are seeking ways to reduce and contain education costs.