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New York Post


The Public Schools' Dirty Little Secret

July 02, 2004

By Marcus A. Winters, Jay P. Greene

More money for public education? Like apple pie and the flag, everyone’s for it.

But, it turns out, only because most Americans don’t know how much cash the schools already get. And, a new survey found, when they hear how much public schools now spend per pupil, a clear majority think schools already have enough to do the job.

The survey, whose results were reported this week, was sponsored by the Education Testing Service, the same people who administer the SAT and GRE.

Most people have no idea how much money public schools spend per child. Almost half of those surveyed (48 percent) estimated that public schools spend less than $5,000 per pupil. Nearly 3 in 10 Americans think public schools spend between $5,000 and $10,000; only 14 percent believe that schools spend over $10,000 per student.

Not even close to the mark. The U.S. Department of Education says total spending was actually $9,354 per student in 2001-02. Given the pace of increases in previous years, this year’s per-pupil spending undoubtedly approached if not exceeded $10,000.

So: Almost 86 percent of the public underestimates how much money public schools get. And the average American is off by a factor of two.

To be fair, most Americans would also probably be unable to guess the amount spent on sewers or roads. But that ignorance isn’t driving huge artificial demand for needless increases in sewer and road spending. In education, however, ignorance of actual spending explains a large part of the push to spend more and more.

When people are confronted with the reality of how much we spend on education, the near-universal support for bigger outlays crumbles.

The pollsters, using a conservative figure for spending (leaving out capital costs like construction), told people in their survey that public schools spend between $7,000 and $9,000 per student. Once they heard that, 62 percent said that amount should be enough.

Only ignorance makes taxpayers think that the public schools need more money.

The canard that public schools are under-funded is less a function of an uninformed public than of a misled one: The teacher unions and their allies have convinced taxpayers that schools need more money partly by failing to mention how much they already have. They parade around to the media some disadvantaged students and a few carefully selected run-down schools and then simply assert to an unsuspecting public that more funds are necessary.

Never mind that taxpayers can provide enormous sums to schools and it’s still possible for students to be poor and schools to be run-down -- if the money is being wasted.

And there’s good reason to believe the money is being wasted, given that per-pupil spending has doubled over the last three decades while student achievement has remained stagnant.

For public schools to cry poor like they do is a bit like Warren Buffett disguising himself in disheveled clothes and walking the streets of Omaha, cup in hand, begging unsuspecting passersby for change: Quite a few people would reach down deep in their pockets for this seemingly homeless stranger. But if they ever caught wind that the man on the comer with the "Homeless Vet" sign was really one of the world’s richest men looking for another way to make a buck, they’d not only stop giving, they might just kick him in the shins.

America’s public schools spend more than $400 billion each year -- more than we spend on national defense (even with the War on Terror) and more than all federal domestic programs except Social Security and health-care programs.

For those who argue that the vast sums devoted to public education are insufficient in the face of even larger educational challenges, here’s a challenge: Tell the American people how much you think it would cost to produce what you believe is an adequate education. Name the price. Then, once we reach that amount, adjusting for inflation, we can stop the endless calls for spending more.

But we suspect that advocates for increasing spending never will name the price of an adequate education. If they did, the American people would finally become aware of the true price tag -- and refuse to pay.



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