Opinion: K-12 Update

Lindalyn’s Journal

Week of May 28, 2007

Recent data underscore what American taxpayers know all too well: at virtually every level – federal, state, and local – education expenditures are skyrocketing. Federal education spending jumped from $15 billion in 2000 to $25 billion in 2005. And just this past week, the U.S. Census Bureau released its 2005 Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data, revealing an uptick in funding across the states.

According to Census data, the U.S. spent an average of $8,701 per student in 2005 — five percent more than the previous year, reports CNN. Top spenders were New York at $14,119 per student, New Jersey at $13,800, and Washington, D.C. at $12,979. Utah ($5,257), Arizona ($6,261), and Idaho ($6,283) were the most frugal states, tallying up per-pupil totals of around $6,000 or less. Unfortunately, this report renders meaningful state-by-state comparisons difficult, since authors did not adjust for cost of living.

In North Carolina, overall education spending increased from $5.5 billion in 2000 to $6.5 billion in 2005; in 2005, Census reports that the state spent $7,159 per student. At the local level, some supplements are on the rise as well: in Mecklenburg County, for example, the local supplement grew from $112 million in 2000 to $152 million in 2005. The local spending boom may be due in part to administrative salaries: a recent article in the Charlotte Observer revealed that the number of administrators earning annual salaries of more than $100,000 increased from 50 in 2006 to 70 this year. In Wake County, 83 administrators earn more than $100,000 annually.

Just how much money does it take to educate a child? If education budgets are any indication, the answer always seems to be “a little bit more.” But while money clearly matters, more isn’t necessarily better. Research has failed to find a strong correlation between education spending and student performance. Yet we continue to spend ourselves into oblivion, all the while racking up an ever-lengthening list of troubled public schools. As Eisenhower’s Treasury Secretary George Humphrey once quipped, “It’s a terribly hard job to spend a billion dollars and get your money’s worth.”

If we’re really serious about maximizing the impact of our education dollars, we need to move beyond questions of mere quantity and address issues of quality and efficiency. The best way to do this is by interjecting free market principles such as competition into education. Giving all families the ability to patronize schools of choice would alter education’s economic landscape for the better. Competition, by its very nature, begets cost-effectiveness and improves services.

Obviously, school choice isn’t a cure-all, imbued with the power to remedy all that ails public education. But it’s a major step toward innovation and fiscal responsibility. The education establishment might prefer the status quo, but guest what? We can’t afford it.