Education Finance Debated at Forum

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Education Finance Debated at Forum

by Ari Armstrong, May 1999

Linda Seebach, columnist for the Rocky Mountain News, and Beverly Ausfahl, President of the Colorado Education Association, discussed education finance at the Community Issues Forum April 7. Greg Smith moderated the event, entitled "Education Finance and Reform." The Forum is held the first Wednesday of every month at the Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Denver at 18th and Broadway.

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(Photo: C.E.A. President Beverly Ausfahl, attorney Greg Smith, and columnist Linda Seebach discuss education finance at the Community Issues Forum April 7.)

Both Seebach and Ausfahl focused on education spending within the government school system. Seebach began by noting the level of spending for education is not as important as whether that money is spent wisely. The level of spending is correlated with students' performance, she said, but only slightly. Frequently students from schools with relatively low funding outperform students from schools with high funding. For instance, students in Utah typically perform better than students in New Jersey, even though the funding per-pupil in Utah is several thousand dollars less per year.

Other factors that affect the quality of education, Seebach said, include:

  • Curriculum.
  • The quality of teachers.
  • The percentage of funds used for classroom instruction.
  • The percentage of a school's staff that actually teaches.
  • Class size.

Seebach explained that in Colorado per-pupil spending is $4,871 per year, which ranks Colorado 36th in the nation. Other rankings which place Colorado 49th are based on "idiosyncratic" measurements that include such concerns as rate of spending increases from year to year. After the formal presentation, Ausfahl mentioned that she didn't get into the debate over ranking, because in any case Colorado is in the bottom third, a fact which concerns her.

Seebach made the controversial claim that some teachers are paid too much in the present system. However, some subjects like physics and math suffer shortages of good teachers, so perhaps certain types of teachers ought to be paid more, she said. Seebach also noted that the best teachers can move into higher paying jobs in other fields, a problem a stronger merit-based system of pay might alleviate.

Ausfahl explained the way money is divvied up among Colorado's government schools. State law redistributes some funds to establish more equitable spending across districts. One criterion by which funds are handed out is the percentage of students within a school who are on a free or reduced-cost lunch program, which is taken as a reasonable proxy for the socio-economic conditions of the students.

Ausfahl expressed hope that new "standards-based" curricula now taking shape in Colorado's schools, along with more detailed statistical studies, can provide better information about the optimal level of funding for educational institutions. This position is more sophisticated than the traditional stand of the N.E.A., according to which optimal funding is often defined as "more money than is currently available." Ausfahl's analysis suggests, at least in principle, that at some level per-pupil spending can be frozen or even reduced.

Ausfahl seemed to tense a little when someone from the audience suggested the problem of school finance would disappear if government got out of education altogether. At one point Smith commented on market schools, noting that vouchers would likely bring those schools currently in the market system under government control.

Homeschooling and Government Schooling

One debate that arose during the question period is the efficacy of homeschooling. Seebach said she wishes she had homeschooled her own child, while Ausfahl expressed concern with the practice. In particular, Ausfahl suggested the government schools are just as good at inspiring "creative thinking," and they are better at developing social skills.

After the session, Seebach disagreed with Ausfahl's take on the development of social skills within homeschooling, citing the myriad of group activities in which most homeschoolers participate. Homeschoolers can choose from a range of social activities, including sports, music, church, and so forth. Further, most homeschoolers cite excellent social relations within the family. Seebach added that government schools are anti-social in that they strictly segregate children by age, a practice which hardly prepares them for forming real-world relationships. I would add that government schools often train children to be submissive, obedient, and passive, social traits I don't find particularly helpful.

What about academic skills? I noted the overwhelming evidence that suggests homeschoolers perform better on any standardized test one cares to name relative to their counterparts in the government schools. Ausfahl replied that, while homeschoolers are typically better at the "retentive knowledge" covered by standardized tests, the education of homeschoolers is "not always consistent." However, she didn't offer any specifics in support of this claim. While surely not all homeschoolers learn everything Ausfahl might define as essential, Ausfahl would be hard-pressed to sustain the case that the education of homeschoolers is less "consistent" than the education of students in government schools.

But government schools in America are great at fostering "creative thinking" (as opposed to "retentive knowledge"), especially relative to countries like Japan, said Ausfahl. Are they? I've no doubt that many American students become highly creative individuals. But this creativity can be explained entirely in reference to the general culture, apart from the government schools. As Ausfahl herself noted, American culture retains a high degree of individualism and industriousness. I cannot trace any of my creativity back to the government schools. A few of my classes were excellent, but the emotion I most associate with my government schooling is agonizing boredom. I did my creative work outside the schools.

Ausfahl brought up the example of high school debate to illustrate the level of creative thinking present in American students. However, having participated on my high school debate team, I know that debate depends very little on the government schools. It is an activity tangential to the government schools that has more to do with self-motivated students engaged in autodidactic learning. The government schools could disappear completely and such students would continue to express themselves intelligently and creatively.

In short, Ausfahl didn't make a convincing case that homeschooling is inferior to government schooling. The opposite conclusion is more strongly justified when one examines the substance of her remarks.

The Cost of a Good Education

Does a good education require ever-increasing levels of funding? I've never heard a government educator say anything other than that.

But I don't buy it. First we must realize that a host of factors are more important to the quality of education than spending. The intellectual vibrancy of a child's family, the student's self-motivation, and pedagogy are each more important to education than money.

A skilled teacher doesn't need million dollar studies, high-tech equipment, or the latest fads and textbooks to help children learn. Indeed, the expensive fads frequently weaken education. The glossiest, most colorful textbooks I've ever seen are also the worst. Some of the best teaching methods are among the least expensive, which is the main reason why they are shunned by the tax-funded education bureaucracy.

Even assuming Seebach's contention that spending is slightly correlated with performance, that hardly demonstrates that schools need more money to do a better job. Schools could improve simply by diverting funds away from programs that don't work into programs proven to work, which is to say into core academic subjects. But too many government bureaucrats would lose their jobs if the schools actually started doing away with programs. So we see a few effective programs added on top of the wasteful ones.

During the question period, I mentioned that homeschooling costs a small fraction of what government schooling costs. Smith pointed out that homeschooling isn't necessarily inexpensive, as sometimes a parent will give up a salaried job in order to teach his or her children. Granted, this is the case with some homeschoolers. However, I don't think it's the norm. Many homeschoolers proudly refer to themselves as "unschoolers," and believe children learn best when they are pursuing their own interests rather than the interests of an adult educator. Even more active homeschooling parents don't usually forego an outside job simply to homeschool.

But there is another, perhaps more fundamental question: is the level of funding as important as the type of funding?

As I outlined briefly to Ausfahl, the more radical critics of government schools believe that finance by taxation is itself damaging. Parents who rely on tax funds for their children's education have little incentive to retain an activist role in that education. If the government pays the bills, it also assumes the responsibility. This is not true of all parents, of course, but it may create perverse incentives leading to serious problems.

Parents who take the financial responsibility for their children's education, on the other hand, maintain a direct and immediate interest in how that money is used. Moreover, the schools must listen to the parents and create an education that works for the parents and their students, because the parents retain the right to withdraw their funds from a school.

Marshall Fritz of the Separation of School and State Alliance sees "education welfare" as a major cause of parental abnegation of responsibility. If parents are responsible for financing their children's education, they automatically take a more serious interest in that education. They are compelled to think through what a good education is, and thus to take a more activist role in their children's upbringing. When parents hand the responsibility of educating their children over to the government, many lose some part of the incentive to maintain an intellectually vibrant family life, which is more important to a child's success than mere financing.

Standards and Finance

The only way to tell if a given level of spending in education is "optimal" is to see what effect the spending has on students' performance, relative to some pre-defined set of standards. But then the question immediately arises: who sets the standards, and what significance do they have?

Albert Einstein failed out of math. Mark Twain dropped out of school to work ships on the Mississippi. To what extent can success be defined in terms of "education standards?"

Not all students learn in the same ways, or at the same rates. Some students excel in mathematics at an early age, others at a late age. And some never enjoy math. Yet, somehow, the world continues to turn, and people from all learning groups continue to find personal happiness.

To the extent that standards don't matter, the argument that funding should be "optimized" to meet these standards falls apart.

Certainly I don't wish to argue that there's no way to measure academic progress. I even defend and tutor such tests as the SAT and ACT, though I note their severe limitations. However, one can acknowledge the usefulness of (some) standards without arguing that the goal of the educational system should be to compel every child to meet particular standards at a particular age.

In the end, the question, "what is the appropriate level of spending for education," makes about as much sense as the question, "what is the appropriate level of spending for automobiles," or gourmet food, or art supplies, or computer software, or shoes. It's strange that government educators so often claim they support "diversity," and yet they treat children as homogeneous units, ready for the mass-production line. <Stamp> First grade: two plus two equals four. <Stamp> Fourth grade: eight times eight is sixty-four. <Stamp> Ninth grade: The United States is a democratic country in which the majority rules by vote. <Stamp>

Some people love cars. They spend lots of money on a fleet of expensive cars. Others who love cars buy cheap parts and rebuild vehicles with a loving hand. Other people love farming, or painting, or computers. For a computer whiz, the "appropriate" level of spending for computers is radically higher than it is for the average person. Others love academics. Some choose to attend Harvard for $23,000 per year, while others attend Metro for $2,000 per year. And still others of us attend the Austrian Economics Study Group and pay $5 for the meal.

Centralized planning, be it on the federal, state, or district level, can't handle the diversity of real people. It can deal only with "appropriate" levels of inputs for statistical people. So in answer to the question, "What is the appropriate level of funding for education?", the only coherent reply is, "Return the responsibility of funding education to individuals, and let them decide for themselves!"

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