Wednesday, December 08, 2004

How to talk usefully about the funding of public education

A call to action for Twin Cities schools
The time has come for the state of Minnesota to put up the money needed to fund public education adequately or let school districts raise the money they need themselves, a group of Twin Cities-area school district officials said Tuesday.

The Association of Metropolitan School Districts estimates that its 26 member districts face more than $88 million in cuts in 2005-06, unless state funding formulas dramatically increase. That gloomy picture is just part of a trend, the group's leaders said at a St. Paul news conference. Over the past three years, member districts -- which educate about one-third of the state's schoolchildren -- have eliminated the jobs of more than 2,800 employees, including about 2,000 teachers.

Of all the sterile discussions I have to endure, among the least valuable are discussions about educational funding. In my experience, no-one presents any useful data.

I'd like each presentation to begin with 4 charts, with an optional 5th chart for discussions of local funding (all inflation adjusted of course):

1. A 15 yr chart of per student funding.
2. A 15 yr chart of spend on infrastructure (buildings, etc).
3. A 15 yr chart of the average salary of a state legislator.
4. A 15 yr chart of the % of students enrolled in public education (vs. private education).
5. Optional: A 15 yr chart of local tax revenue.

Once those charts are up front, one can talk intelligently. I would expect student per student costs to rise faster than inflation because:

1. Knowledge workers are becoming more costly, so there's increasing competition for teachers.
2. We're working harder to educate chidlren with language, cognitive and income disadvantages.
3. Regulations and computerization are impacting infrastructure spend.
4. Migration to private schools or to wealthier districts increases public school educational costs (private schools "cherry pick" children who are less costly to educate).

If one finds that educational spend is barely tracking inflation, then we likely have a serious underspend.

Ahh, but what if tax revenues are declining? Our population is aging and may consider education to be a lower priority. That is the crux of the matter. It is fundamentally the same issue we face with social security "reform". What is the duty owed by society to citizens, and citizens to society?

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