$26,000 per Student?

School reformers should try to make public schools cheaper, not just better.

Cory Booker and Mark Zuckerberg.
Instead of top-down “reform” of the kind that Cory Booker, with the help of Mark Zuckerberg, championed in Newark, America’s school districts need to “relinquish” their power over how schools are run day to day.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo (left) by Spencer Platt/Getty. Photo (right) by Justin Sullivan/Getty.

Say you were given $26,000 to educate a young kid for a year. Do you think you could put that money to good use? I do.

In most of the country, there are quite good private schools that would charge you substantially less for a year’s tuition, leaving you with plenty of extra money for field trips, academic enrichment programs, summer camp. Tuition at the average Catholic elementary school, for example, is $3,673, and it is $9,622 for a freshman in high school. To be sure, tuition tends to be higher at nonsectarian schools, but the average is nowhere near $26,000. There are rarefied schools in America’s big cities and boarding schools where tuition is substantially higher than $26,000, but that largely reflects the fact that those schools long to be highly exclusive status symbols.

Let’s leave aside this crazy notion that you’d just spend your $26,000 on private school tuition and a few extras for the kid in question. That’s too easy. Let’s instead imagine that you’re given $26,000 per student to educate 30 kids, or a classroom’s worth. If my math’s not off—and it very well could be, as I am a product of America’s public schools—you would have $780,000. Don’t you think you could hire a couple of pretty good teachers, two personal trainers, a chef, and a social worker for that much money—and have enough left over to rent a light and airy loft space in a typical American city? The rent might be cheaper still in a depressed inner-city neighborhood. If you decided to skimp on the personal trainers, you’d have more money to spend on high-tech gadgets and enriching experiences for your young charges. Lots of people would come up with lots of different ways to give their students an engaging learning experience. Yes, I’m making this sound much easier than it would be in practice. It takes a lot of experience to know which teachers you should hire, and to navigate the thicket of regulations designed to prevent amateurs like me from setting up fly-by-night schools.

The reason I’m so fixated on this $26,000 figure is that in 2010, when Newark, New Jersey, became ground zero of the education reform movement, the local schools were spending more than $26,000 per student. That was the year Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged $100 million to back education reform efforts in Newark if the city raised another $100 million, a pledge that helped put then-Mayor Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie on the national radar. It’s admirable that Zuckerberg chose to devote this money to poor kids and not to buying an island off the coast of Central America and populating it with reanimated dinosaurs. But Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, points out the inconvenient fact that this $200 million cash infusion—Zuckerberg’s money plus the matching funds—would represent just a 4 percent increase in Newark’s annual public school spending over the course of its five-year payout.

An extra $40 million a year might have made a difference if Newark’s public schools were a well-oiled machine. That’s not the impression you get from Dale Russakoff’s sobering account of Newark’s school reform efforts in The New Yorker. Russakoff reports that there is one administrator for every six public school students in Newark, and clerks represent 30 percent of the central bureaucracy’s workforce. Despite this army of administrators, Russakoff observes that “payroll checks and student data were habitually late and inaccurate.” Given the enormous amount Newark was spending on clerks, and clerks’ clerks, is it obvious that Newark’s public schools needed bigger budgets to improve the quality of education?

Newark is a rough town. It has long been one of America’s poorest and most corrupt cities, and the problems plaguing its public schools are so egregious that one hesitates to treat it as a test case. Even if Newark’s public schools were run by crackerjack professionals, they’d face serious challenges. Unfortunately, its problems aren’t unique. Few of Newark’s children are raised in the kind of stable homes that offer a solid foundation for educational success, and that’s a phenomenon that’s increasingly common across the country.

In fairness, Newark’s per pupil spending is unusually high. The K-12 average for the United States in 2010 was $11,826. That is 39 percent higher than the average per pupil spending in the world’s rich democracies, and it is second only to Switzerland. Though American students don’t perform terribly well in math, reading, and science compared with students in other rich democracies, American schools know how to spend. As of 2011, the U.S. spent $550 billion on K-12 public schools. This masks enormous variation across states. New York state, for example, spent $18,618 per pupil in 2010 while Utah spent $6,064. To some extent, this reflects differences in the cost of living, but the cost of living isn’t three times as high in Oswego, New York, as it is in St. George, Utah. Is New York state’s spending buying better results?

One crude way to answer this question is to consider how New York state students fare on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. When we compare the average math scores of fourth-graders who are eligible for the national school lunch program, we find that poor kids in New York state score 231 while poor kids in Utah score 233. This is hardly a slam-dunk case. Kids in New York state and kids in Utah are different in all kinds of ways that go beyond income. But are they “we have no choice but to spend three times as much” different?

Or consider Milwaukee, which has had a system of school vouchers in place for several years. In 2012, 57 percent of voucher students scored proficient or higher in reading on a statewide standardized test while the same was true of 60 percent of Milwaukee Public School students. Score one for traditional public schools! The math results were similar: 41 percent of voucher students reached proficiency while 50 percent of their MPS peers cleared the same bar. So was this a clear case of public school superiority? Not quite. It turns out that while MPS spent an average of $9,812 per student, the voucher program spent $7,670 per student. This partly reflects the fact that voucher schools are often more bare bones than local public schools. But the voucher schools also did a much better job of getting their students to graduate. Though Milwaukee’s voucher schools are far from perfect, they appear to be doing something right, starting with the fact that they’re using public dollars more efficiently. (Update, May 21, 2014: Here is a more rigorous take on how Milwaukee’s voucher schools stack up against its public schools.)

Calling for higher spending is an easy way to signal that you care about The Children. Yet there is very little reason to believe that spending more leads to better results. Though per-pupil spending in the United States has doubled since 1983 in inflation-adjusted terms, educational outcomes have remained stagnant. What does make a difference is allowing new educational models to flourish. Instead of top-down “reform” of the kind that Cory Booker and Chris Christie championed in Newark, America’s school districts need to “relinquish” their power over how schools are run day to day, as Neerav Kingsland, the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, has argued. Over the course of six years, New Orleans cut the gap in educational performance between its students and students across the state of Louisiana by 70 percent. The share of students attending failing schools fell from 78 percent to 40 percent. All of this happened without a big funding boost. Rather, it was the result of the steady replacement of traditional public schools with innovative public charter schools, which found new ways to do more with less.

If you really care about public education, calling for more spending is exactly the wrong thing to do. Pouring more money into dysfunctional schools gives incompetent administrators the excuse they need to avoid trimming bureaucratic fat and shedding underutilized facilities and underperforming personnel. It spares them the need to focus on the essentials, or to rethink familiar models. The promise of constant spending increases is what keeps lousy schools lousy. When private businesses keep failing their customers year after year, they eventually go out of business. When public schools do the same, they dupe taxpayers, and the occasional tech billionaire, into forking over more money. If you really, really care about The Children, call for a system in which the most cost-effective schools expand while the least cost-effective schools shrink, and school leaders are given the freedom to figure out what works best for their teachers and their students.