Swatting Flies: Kansas City, NJ Tax Limits, NCLB Blueprint & Private School “Costs”

There’s just not enough time in the day to deal with all of the absurdity out there right now and to do so in any thorough way. So, here are a couple of quick replies to what I’ve seen in the past week.

1. Cato released They Spent What? http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa662.pdf in an attempt to show how much more public school districts in any one location spend than “private schools.” So, Cato took total expenditure data (all capital outlay, etc.) for urban public school systems for 2009 and divided it by enrolled students to get a maximized total expenditure figure for public school districts. Then, they compared this maximized public expenditure figure to a “median” (not mean, or mean weighted by actual # of students served, but a deflated, school level median) tuition level from a national sample of private schools (about 2,300) from 2003-04 and rather arbitrarily assumed that tuition from 2003-04 represents 80% of total expenditures and that private school tuition rose by $347 per year between 2003-04 and 2009.  Note that even at the region level (not the city level used by Cato) the Schools and Staffing Survey includes relatively small samples of private schools. Further, Cato provides little justification for either the 80% or $347 figure – except to refer to their own “expert” on the topic (and some location specific reports). For a better analysis of actual private school spending with detail on samples and data sources, see: http://epicpolicy.org/publication/private-schooling-US (note that I make one similar inappropriate comparison in this report where I used operating expenditures for Wash DC in the discussion section. Other than that, this report compares totals to totals and based on actual financial documents of private schools).

2. Much has been made in recent days of the closure of about half of the Kansas City Missouri Public Schools. Some have compared this event to Central Falls firings – Taking a hard line on “failing urban schools in need of reform.” Wow… that’s a stretch. Others have casually thrown around rhetoric of $2 billion dollars wasted on social engineering in Kansas City, in reference to desegregation litigation that extended from the 1970s through 2003. For a more precise history of what actually went on during the desegregation litigation, see: http://law.bepress.com/expresso/eps/1213/

Also, note that in 2006 (2007?), the Missouri legislature passed a law which allowed the remaining predominantly white residential corner of Kansas City Missouri School District to vote itself out of KCMSD and into a neighboring predominantly white district (since the deseg case was over, apparently this was okay). This resulted in the transfer of a large share of children and a handful of school facilities to Independence, MO. As a result of this and other factors (including increased charter school enrollment), KCMSD now serves about half the number of children it did when I first lived there about 12 years ago.  While I’m unaware of the specific reorganization plan to be implemented, it would seem that some reorganization might be warranted. But, it should also be acknowledged that the State of Missouri has, since 1995, continuously pulled back financial support for KCMSD while advancing policies that leave KCMSD with a more needy, albeit smaller, student population to serve. More on this at a later point.

3. New Jersey’s Governor has proposed a constitutional amendment placing a cap on both local property tax growth and on state expenditure growth. It would appear that the proposal would allow for local referendum to override the cap, but it is a cap nonetheless and one based on an arbitrary constraint of 2.5%. What do we know about such “Tax and Expenditure Limitations,” or TELs? In short, they are generally bad policy which do not lead to “economic growth” (“private” sector growth) and which often lead to decreases in a) the quality of public school teachers and b) student outcomes.  That is, hard caps on state expenditures and/or local property taxes tend to harm public service quality – specifically public education – and really don’t provide other economic growth benefit. Colorado’s TABOR is a particularly striking example. The local override option would result in significant inequities across municipalities and school districts which have widely varied capacity to achieve an override. Link to analysis of Massachusetts’ Prop 2 1/2.

4. Finally, the NCLB Blueprint (http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/blueprint/blueprint.pdf) was released by the Dept. of Ed. The Blueprint contains only this short reference to “equity,” and seems to emphasize the district responsibility over the state responsibility – in part by the sequence of their reference, but also by reference to “comparability” which is terminology specifically related to within district allocations and Title I aid.

Greater equity. To give every student a fair chance to succeed, and give principals and teachers the resources to support student success, we will call on school districts and states to take steps to ensure equity, by such means as moving toward comparability in resources between high- and low-poverty schools.

As I’ve noted many times before, the greatest disparities between higher and lower poverty schools are those that exist between, not within districts, largely because few districts have both high and low poverty schools. Rather, there are higher and lower poverty districts. I will post more on this topic when my forthcoming article on within versus between district disparities comes out in the near future.

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