Commentary and opinion
Official reports of public school budgets and spending seldom have been easy for the common taxpayer, like myself, to understand whether such disclosures come from state, district or individual school – and, whether the numbers that actually are reported for expenditures are those for non-teaching personnel, sub-categories of pupils, or for equipment, repairs and security, they rarely are easy for the common reader to understand.
The official reporting accountant often lacks incentive to parade the employer’s relative wealth, federal and/or private charity. Thus, when we hear that the District of Superport spends $15,000 per child, while a bordering district spends half again that amount, this doesn’t tell us a lot until we learn more about what these respective districts included in their calculation.
When co-authors and I were writing “Private Wealth and Public Education” in the 1960s, we found that states, districts, individual schools and, in turn, the media, often were not telling it all, whether by design or innocence. Some were silent about debt or the interest paid on it, and often the costs of discharging or sidelining unperforming teachers; the same often was true with respect to income such as federal aid, gifts from private donors, rents received and the like.
Very often, no clear legal standard of reporting bound ether state or district authorities. As our research proceeded, it became plain that folks responsible for composing the “public” message sometimes were serving purposes of their own.
Fifty years later, spies tell me that things have changed but a little; more than one reliable expert friend who has some window on the California system has been unable with confidence to estimate the actual overall per-pupil cost to the taxpayer. The public system, to a considerable degree, operates as if it were part of that private market in which competing schools often prefer to remain inscrutable on the subject of resources and budget.
What is clear about the numbers of the public sector is the steady half-century swell in our expenditure per child and the overall enhancement of spending for non-teacher personnel. The latter now represents something over half the budget in most corners of our society. That this shocks me is, I suppose, the effect of its radical difference from my own childhood experience.
I hereby concede that today’s reality is not necessarily bad; those assistant principals, librarians, nurses, bus drivers, coaches, janitors and security may be necessary, and even a blessing.
In any case, this shift in economic focus is a reality of which taxpayers should be aware. The traditional public school has become increasingly expensive even as it has consistently failed to graduate better educated kids. That happier outcome has been left to parentally chosen charter schools which have shown themselves able to teach more at a smaller cost per-pupil to the taxpayer. Some do so even while turning a profit.
Again, I am not suggesting any unlawful behavior nor pushing away a formula for setting the best level of spending for any specific purpose or for total investment per pupil. I pray only that one day the media will be given – then report in an intelligible manner – a clearer picture of just where the dollars went. While grossly overstating the problem, English humorist, novelist, playwright and law reform activist Sir Alan Herbert showed the effect on many a frustrated taxpayer:
Fancy giving money to the Government
Nobody will see the stuff again!
— Herbert, Too Much!
Whether too much, too little, or just the right sum, there are many among us who would like the chance to see that the “stuff” got to its assigned place and is performing its assigned task.