The Real Cost of K-12 Education
The annual cost of K-12 education in the United States has increased steadily for decades. For 2015, the cost is about $600 billion. Fiscal reality has not diminished the demand by politicians and their powerful union cronies for even more money, a substantial portion of which would be earmarked to fund the high salaries of over-staffed administrators and trillions in retiree pension obligations.
Reported per pupil spending data vary widely across different studies. Because the figures represent only classroom instructional costs, they significantly understate the actual costs, sometimes by several thousands of dollars as a 2010 study by CATO institute notes.
Actual per pupil spending must also include total operational costs such as capital expenses, transportation costs, administrative, clerical and support staff wages and benefits as well as debt service, which significantly increases the reported baseline figure.
States differ in the amount budgeted for education, often with little to no apparent correlation between number of dollars spent and graduation rates or scores on achievement tests. For example, New York spends about 80% more per student than the national average. Public schools in New York City spend $20,331 per pupil. Their 61.3% graduation rate is lower than the national as well as the state average. NYC charter schools spend considerably less per pupil and have a 70% graduation rate.
The District of Columbia rivals New York for per pupil spending. DCPS average per pupil spending is $19,847. The class of 2014 graduation rate reported by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education was 58%, significantly lower than the national average. The graduation rate from charter schools was 69%.
Large urban centers with powerful political and union lobbies spend significantly more per pupil as Fox Business Network reported. Per pupil spending is $23,356 in Camden (NJ), $20,663 in Trenton and $22,267 in Newark. The inflated costs produced a disappointing 40% graduation rate.
The poor outcome suggests a need for reform, not increased funds. As a recent California Policy Center study notes, per pupil spending by public schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District ($15,372) was 44% higher than per pupil spending by Alliance Charter Schools ($10,649) yet Alliance had higher SAT scores and graduation rates. Alternative education options can reduce costs and increase benefits.
Education represents the largest share of any state’s annual budget. It generally ranges from 20-40%. California voters passed Proposition 98 in 1988 which established a minimum level of funding for education at 43% of general tax revenues. Proposition 111 in 1990 amended that mandate which now guarantees additional funds every year.
In his 2015 California state budget, Governor Brown designated $68.4 billion for education. Only 40% is earmarked for teachers’ salaries. The balance is divided between salaries for administrative and support staff and employee benefits.
Because of the lack of transparency, the public remains in the dark about the truth and dutifully votes to approve nearly every ballot measure for additional funds to educate our children. In every instance, it burdens taxpayers with higher income and sales taxes as well as local property taxes.
Inflated school payrolls and paychecks for top administrators account for much of the increased costs. School superintendents, in fact, are among the highest paid government employees. The average salary for a superintendent is $162,000. Benefits such as cell phones, cars, vacations, membership fees to fitness clubs and costs to obtain a doctorate or pay for a child’s college tuition can pad the base salary by as much as 80%.
In California, New York, New Jersey and nine other states, school superintendents make more than their governors, sometimes more than twice as much. In NJ, 80 superintendents take home over $200,000. Governor Christie earns $175,000.
In Long Island, two superintendents take home over $500,000. Governor Cuomo’s annual salary is $179,000. The superintendent for Los Angeles’ huge LAUSD is paid $330,000, double what Governor Brown is paid.
Another costly scam is double dipping, an increasingly common practice. Educators retire early, collect a pension, get rehired elsewhere and pocket a second paycheck. The practice further balloons budgets. California has 5,400 CALSTRS retirees who double dip.
The teachers’ unions lack transparency as well, making it difficult to get data on salaries and benefit packages of their top executives. Dennis Von Roekel, head of the National Education Association, earns $362,000. He actually takes home $460,000 after perks and benefits have been added.
Randi Weingarten, executive director of the American Federation of Teachers, takes home $493,000, significantly more than her $407,000 base pay. Teachers might think twice about paying hefty union annual dues if they knew more than 600 NEA employees were getting six-figure paychecks.
The disconnect between reported and actual costs for student spending raises troubling questions about accountability and financial mismanagement. Equally troubling is the striking difference between the costs for public compared to private schools. Public education’s steep price tag should be sufficient impetus to establish markedly increased numbers of charter as well as private and parochial schools.
The author of the CATO study cited earlier in this article proposes legislation that would require school districts to create and maintain a revenue and expenditure website with detailed data on exact spending per pupil. The online data must be easily accessible and understandable to the public and updated on a monthly basis. A template for the proposed Financial Accountability in Education Act can be found in Appendix B. It is a valuable piece of work.
Poor student performance despite the escalating cost of public education is unacceptable. It is a situation in need of vigilant oversight. 10 separate agencies currently share oversight responsibility for public education in California. Consolidating the bureaucracy would result in significant savings for taxpayers as well as lessen the likelihood of mismanagement or fraud as would trimming bloated salaries and benefits.
The bill for K-12 public education in America is $600 billion. Taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth. They should demand greater transparency and accountability and not settle for less.
A psychiatrist might say taxpayers, not unlike children, have obediently acceded to the demands of their political fathers. Their passive acquiescence has been costly and destructive, particularly to the institution of public education. The need to end this regressive behavior is long overdue. It is time to take charge and start the process of reversing a tragic situation. Americans deserve better.
About the Author: R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.