Redoubled Efforts and Forgotten Aims

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, May 27, 2002

"Fanaticism,” wrote the philosopher George Santayana back in 1905, “consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.”

Well, given the history of other recent Nevada “education” campaigns, anyone who’s noticed the new and very vocal “redoubled” efforts in that sector can’t be blamed for wondering how much this particular campaign actually aims at real education.

We see the chronically reform-resistant state board of education—long controlled by the teacher union—beating the drum for $851 million for “school improvements.” We see state school superintendents—mavens of institutional sclerosis—lobbying for $904 million more in taxes to sink into their paper-shuffling swamps. And we see PLAN, a “Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada” leftist organizations—largest of which is the teacher union—demanding that Silver State taxes be boosted by $932 million.

In each of these cases, the rationale given for increasing taxes on Nevadans is to route more money into state “education”—with no promise of reform. Though Silver State residents are already under real economic pressure, this coordinated hard-sell campaign incessantly insinuates that anyone not eager to throw good money after bad, into this rich but dysfunctional system, is a Bad Person.

Thus last week when the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual national average of per-pupil spending in government-run schools, the always-shrill Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, went into paroxysms of exultant indignation: "We've done nothing to stop our fall to the bottom of this and every other list, and that's shameful. Where is our commitment to our children?" Clark County Superintendent Carlos Garcia was not far behind: “[M]aybe now people will see that we are grossly underfunded."

Unfortunately for the guilt trip on which Assemblywoman Giunchigliani and Superintendent Garcia want to take you, innumerable studies have established that there is no positive correlation at all between per-pupil spending and student learning.

Actually, why should there be? “Per-pupil spending” is just non-capital spending for government schools divided by the number of children forced to attend those same schools. It has virtually nothing to do with the amount of intelligent care invested by humane, professional teachers in serious, seeking students. Nor does the figure even attempt to chart most learning that goes on, which is outside of government schools—whether in private schools or simply on someone’s personal initiative.

Nevertheless, the Census Bureau figures are interesting. They say that the District of Columbia now spends $9,933 per year on each student, while the state of Utah spends only $4,331—less than half as much. Yet Utah consistently thrashes the District in such key indicators of student achievement as the SAT-1.

Indeed, to some degree there is a negative correlation between per-pupil expenditures and educational achievement. Consider the three states with the lowest per-pupil expenditures in the period of this census and the three states or districts with the highest per-pupil expenditures.

The three lowest were Utah, Mississippi and Arizona; their average annual per-student expenditure was $4,793. The three highest were New Jersey, New York and the District of Columbia; their average annual per-student expenditure was $10,085—more than twice as high.

Yet, the mean scores achieved on the SAT-1 verbal test by students in the low per-pupil-spending states significantly exceeded the comparable scores from the high states—551 to 502. It was a similar story with the SAT-1 math scores: The three states with the lowest per-pupil spending yield an average mean score of 547. The three states with the highest per-pupil spending, on the other hand, could only achieve an average mean score of 502.

So what is the relationship between a state spending less and yet its children learning more? While the subject is complex, one key variable seems to be the local power of national teacher unions.

Happy school systems are not fruitful organizing places for unions. Thus the presence of one of the national unions suggests that the local government school system was already more or less dysfunctional before the union arrived.

Unfortunately, local empowerment of a national union only increases the problems. While union officials have to give lip service to quality education, their real job is to advance union power and force up personnel spending. So more money is spent, but educational quality continues to decline. Reform now faces even greater political obstacles.

A new status quo results, to which well-paid administrators and ambitious politicians adapt. They, too, gain a vested interest in ignoring needed reforms. And so we get redoubled efforts and forgotten aims—increasingly descending into fanaticism.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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