Raise Standards, Not Money
October 7, 2002
By Jay P. Greene
Joel Klein, the head of New York City public schools, tapped Caroline Kennedy last week to head an office whose mission is to raise private donations for the city's public school system. Clearly, the limitless taxing power of the state needed to be supplemented with the almost limitless wealth of the Kennedy clan and their friends. Or perhaps Mr. Klein thinks that the taxing power of the state has been too limited -- and that New Yorkers don't already pay enough in taxes for their schools.
Spending in New York City public schools already tops $10,000 per pupil, more than is spent by 95 of the country's 100 largest districts. But to Mr. Klein and the black hole that is the teachers' union, too much is never enough. They need more.
The never-ending call for more money is a pillar of the public school myth: public school performance has been lacking because classrooms are overcrowded, facilities are in disrepair, staff is underpaid. The only problem is that additional resources have already been lavished on public schools to lower class sizes, repair facilities and pay staff more, yet student performance continues to stagnate.
In the last three decades, real per-pupil spending nationwide has doubled. During that time, test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for high-school seniors have been flat, while the percentage of 17-year-olds who receive regular high school diplomas has slipped. In New York City, per-pupil spending has grown by 20% over the last decade while the schools still manage to get only half of their students to complete a high school degree. Spending more money hasn't helped one whit.
Private efforts to supplement public expenditures have had little effect either. First, the amount of public money involved in public education is so large that even very large-sounding donations hardly make a difference in per-pupil expenditures. Walter Annenberg's famous donation of $500 million to public schools around the country was hardly a drop in the bucket compared with the $400 billion dollars spent by taxpayers every year on public elementary and secondary schools. New York City's annual public-school expenditure of $10 billion dwarfs any amount that Ms. Kennedy could raise.
Second, pouring private donations into the giant public-school pot makes little difference unless the incentives that govern public-school behavior are altered. Giving private donations to public schools is like throwing money in the alcoholic pan-handler's cup. It may make the giver feel better but it does little to change the drunk's life. He'll only use it to buy more booze.
If the experience of raising private donations has been a sorry one, and if the ever-increasing public expenditures have largely been for naught, why has Mr. Klein enlisted Ms. Kennedy to raise even more? Perhaps the donors she may attract simply want the warm feeling of giving to a cause they see as wholesome, even if it makes scant difference. Or perhaps, to be less charitable to this charitable enterprise, the real purpose of calling for private donations is to project an image of poverty. But with $10,000 to spend per child each year, and an ever-increasing lien on taxpayer's resources, we should all be so poor.
Mr. Greene is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
©2002 The Wall Street Journal
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