'Baseless charges'

Public school finance in Nevada needs a serious overhaul.

By Steven Miller
  • Thursday, May 15, 2008

For at least half a century, the public education lobby in Nevada – and across America – has been blaming the chronic failure of K-12 public schools on allegedly insufficient financial support from taxpayers.

Currently, for example, the Nevada State Education Association is pounding that drum – as well as the pavement – to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. If passed, the measure would raise the resort industry's tax burden by almost 45 percent and then funnel those moneys into automatically higher salaries for all public-school teachers – regardless of an individual teacher's performance.

Nevada's school-district bureaucrats operate out of a similar mindset. Every two years they dispatch to Carson City scores of high-salaried lobbyists, who then descend upon the Nevada Legislature, waving ever-larger spending wish lists and demanding that taxpayers – already being soaked for the lobbyists' own lavish salaries – be soaked even more.

What a new and long-overdue inspection of school finance around the nation reveals, however, is that virtually all the arguments commonly used by unions and districts for ever-higher spending levels are baseless – literally.

That's the astonishing implication of a five-year national project sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project originated, say Paul T. Hill and Marguerite Roza, writing in the May 4 edition of Education Week, when "people from outside the school finance community" began noticing that when public-school educators received windfalls of new money – court-ordered appropriations, for example – the new money virtually never resulted in higher levels of student achievement.

This has been a long-standing issue in Nevada, where per-pupil spending in inflation-adjusted dollars more than doubled since the early 1960s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Yet more than 40 percent of fourth-grade students score as functionally illiterate – i.e., "below basic" – on the nation's most-used report card.

Suspecting that a big part of America's problem must lie with how school districts are using their moneys, the Gates Foundation commissioned an in-depth examination of the links between 1) how much districts spend, 2) what they spend it on and 3) what eventually results on the student-learning front.

Now, after five years and "more than 30 sponsored studies," write Hill and Roza, the project "has confirmed that money is used so loosely in public education – in ways that few understand and that lack plausible connections to student learning – that no one can say how much money, if used optimally, would be enough.

"Accounting systems make it impossible to track how much is spent on a particular child or school, and hide the costs of programs and teacher contracts. Districts can't choose the most cost-effective programs because they lack evidence on costs and results."  (Emphasis added.)

Hill and Roza are scholars at the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education, which manages the Gates Foundation's undertaking, named the School Finance Redesign Project.

They ask a key, but rare question. They also answer it.

"How do legislators know how much to spend on public education? And how do educators know how best to spend the money they get? The only honest answer is that, today, they can't know these things – not because the answers aren't there, but because our school finance system has made it impossible to find them."

In their EdWeek article, however, Hill and Roza do not go further and address why and how "our school finance system" has made it impossible to determine the cost-effectiveness of programs. The professors hint, however, at the answers.

Public education systems, they note, are effectively hostile to experimentation – repeatedly choosing to "remain in the dark" about which approaches to instruction might be more effective. Politically potent special interest groups that have a vested interest in the status quo, such as unions and administrators, come into the picture painted by Hill and Roza when they note that what normally drive district spending decisions are "court orders, regulations, school board politics, fixed commitments to staff members and collective bargaining." Significantly, each item on the list is a necessarily politicized element that comes with government-provided schooling.

The authors and the School Finance Redesign Project call for transparency and numerous other important reforms in public school districts' financial operations. The real significance of their work, however, may actually lie elsewhere.

What they have given us is a powerful and clear explanation as to why incoherence, incompetence and systemic failure so frequently characterize public K-12 education.

Government-run education's problem is, at root, quite simple – namely, that it is government-run education.

Steven Miller is vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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