D. Dowd Muska


Schools and Spending: The Lie Must Die

September 04, 2014

There is no correlation between government-school spending and student performance.

It’s a fact ignored by the dishonest interests behind “The Education Initiative,” a ballot question Nevadans will consider in November. The measure would impose a “margin tax” of 2 percent on the state’s “business entities,” and earmark the revenue raised for “the operation of the public schools … for kindergarten through grade 12.”

No one doubts Nevada’s stinginess when it comes to government education -- at least compared to other states. Only Idaho, Arizona, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Utah spent less, per pupil, in 2012. What’s dodgy is the claim that greater “resources” can boost outcome-oriented metrics such as graduation rates and scores on standardized tests.

Skepticism concerning “investments” in education was warranted as far back as the Johnson administration. In the mid-1960s, sociologist James S. Coleman undertook a voluminous, taxpayer-subsidized study on race and schools. His conclusion is worth quoting at length: “Per-pupil expenditures, books in the library, and a host of other facilities and curricular measures show virtually no relation to achievement if the social environment of the school -- the educational backgrounds of other students and teachers -- is held constant. … Altogether, the sources of inequality of educational opportunity appear to lie first in the home itself and the cultural influences immediately surrounding the home; then they lie in the school’s ineffectiveness to free achievement from the impact of the home, and in the school’s cultural homogeneity which perpetuates the social influences of the home and its environs.”

Fifty years of data confirm Coleman’s finding. Illegitimacy is not a perfect gauge of overall social pathologies, but where it is prevalent, divorce and crime rates tend to be brutal as well. So it’s no surprise that states marked by rampant out-of-wedlock births (think Louisiana and New Mexico) perform abysmally on indicators of student proficiency. In contrast, states with parents possessing the basic decency to provide firm familial and economic foundations (think Utah and New Hampshire) have consistently stellar scholars.

Silver State educrats’ greed would matter solely to Nevada, if the assumption behind their initiative weren’t so entrenched. The Cato Institute’s Andrew J. Coulson estimated that between 1970 and 2010, the cost of sending “a high-school graduate all the way through public school” tripled. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s assessment of “current spending” -- a category that leaves out a significant number of masked outlays -- $10,608 was spent on each student in 2012. This school year’s total tab will be well in excess of $650 billion.

But it’s not enough. It never is. With revenues improving since the depths of the Great Recession, politicians are poised to funnel more cash toward trendy boondoggles, including universal preschool and smaller class sizes. Big Teacher’s political machine engages in every state, on multiple fronts -- initiatives and propositions, legislative lobbying, local-budget referenda, union-contract negotiations, and courtroom conflicts. Legal action has proven to be a remarkably effective tool. Starting in the 1970s, dozens of lawsuits based on nonsense about “equity” and “adequacy” were filed. Many have “succeeded,” and thus dramatically elevated school districts’ bills.

In the Evergreen State, legislators are fighting a separation-of-powers smackdown that will likely inflate education spending. On September 3rd, the high court in Olympia ordered the legislature to explain its supposed failure to make progress on McCleary v. State of Washington. Justices’ 2012 ruling, as The Seattle Times described it, held that “lawmakers are violating the constitutional rights of the state’s 1 million schoolchildren by failing to live up to the state constitution’s requirement to provide them with a basic education.”

The McCleary denouement is difficult to predict. (Some believe that a contempt-of-court finding is certain.) But there’s reason for optimism over Nevada’s educrat-crafted, taxpayer-soaking scheme. When voters are granted the authority to establish new revenue streams for government schools, acquiescence isn’t automatic.

In 2012, while giving Barack Obama an overwhelming victory, Californians mildly approved a tax-hiking ballot initiative to “protect schools and local public safety.” The same voters soundly nixed a costlier proposition devoted almost exclusively to education funding. Last year, Coloradoans decisively rejected Amendment 66, a tax increase designed to pay for “improvements to preschool through twelfth-grade public education.” The coast-to-coast revolt against property taxes, a phenomenon extant even in blue states, is driven by homeowners’ observation that local school districts are overstaffed and underperforming.

The nation’s elites are hopeless, but perhaps a critical mass of Americans is starting to understand that more money ≠ better education. Good news. Too bad it’s arriving five decades late.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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