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Exposing the myth of per-child costs

Exposing the myth of per-child costs

First published March 2, 2006 by ThisWeek Newspapers

By Michael J. Maurer

It would be quite a thing to sponsor a contest for the biggest lie in government.

Contenders would include “We’re here to help,” of course, along with “It’s for the children” and “I just want to give back to the community.”

A personal favorite is, “For every dollar we spend on this program, we’ll gain … .”

I’m collecting quite a list of those. Democrat gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland used it on Valentine’s Day, saying that for every dollar invested in early childhood education we’ll save seven dollars in later remediation, etc. (Bonus lie: We never spend anything, we only invest it.)

Given those figures, why don’t we invest the entire $25-billion state budget? That will yield us a cool $175-billion. Then we’ll put the original $25-billion back in and split the rest.

Beyond these silly and general lies, there are also the more specific ones. The group called Reform Ohio Now told us it would reform elections and make them better, but thankfully, we didn’t believe it. The Republicans told us the penny sales tax was temporary and, of course, we rightly didn’t believe that, although we ended up with it anyway.

The Republicans and Democrats both told us they’d be great investment advisers if we just gave them half a billion dollars of bond money. I don’t think we believed that, either, but we were too lazy to stop their cheap, if effective, ploy of piggybacking onto another program that we did like, the one that pays for roads and water and sewer plants.

It’ll be good money after bad, of course. Either these chosen businesses will fix themselves, in which case they won’t need taxpayer money and should have no special entitlement to it, or they won’t, in which case taxpayer money will only harm them by delaying the day when they’re forced to change to profitable practices.

This might be the biggest lie in government, the one our elected officials must tell themselves as often as they tell us, that they are the anointed ones who can solve every problem that ever graced page A1, and they’ll do it before the start of the evening news.

Yet, for all of these lies, big and small, there is one that stands above all others, one that affects Ohioans the most: the per-child cost of education.

Our every education policy turns on this number, which is most kindly described as the clumsy output of an amalgamation of consultants, bureaucrats, legislators and a hectoring judiciary.

Currently, it’s something like $5,283, while last year it was $5,169 and two years ago, it was $5,058. (Second bonus lie: More digits yield more information, so that $5,283 is a more persuasive and informative number than $5,300.)

As a lie, per-pupil expenditure is a master work, a thing of perverse beauty. To begin with, the figure is literally false. The statewide average of what Ohio’s schools actually spend is $8,755 (FY 2004). From $5,058 to $8,755, some $3,700, is a difference of 73 percent.

Even better than the per-child figure being a lie is that everyone knows it is one. Indeed, it’s impossible for it to be true. The very idea of a per-child number is ridiculous.

Lawyers call this sort of lie a “fiction,” a convenient starting point, because, well, we have to start somewhere. But you don’t need to be a lawyer to understand that a child who wants to study and learn does not cost $5,058 or anything like it. In fact, such a child will save you money, or even make money for you. Put three of these children at a table with a fourth, underachieving child, and they’ll educate him, too.

Conversely, take a child who will not or cannot study and, unless and until you figure out what is stopping him, it doesn’t matter what you spend. It could be the fictitious average $5,283, the actual average of $8,755, or the higher end of as much as $18,685 spent by the wealthy and urban school districts. You may as well stack the money up and burn it, for all the good it does. And, of course, that’s exactly what we’re doing, metaphorically, at least.

What, then, makes superintendents, teachers’ unions, editorialists and judicial showboaters think they have the right to lecture the rest of us to spend more?

The one achievement the General Assembly has on this score, at least that has had any time to come to fruition, is community schools. Community schools’ primary virtue, possibly their sole one, is that the governmental do-gooders — people who are more than happy to take the credit for spending your tax dollars, but never the blame, and who certainly do not either spend their own money or sit face-to-face with a child who is trying to learn — do not have their fingers in every decision from unlocking the doors in the morning to turning the lights off at night.

So, what is the status of this solitary legislative achievement? There is a moderately less than even-money chance that within the next few weeks, the Ohio Supreme Court will declare community schools to be unconstitutional. And the most likely grounds for doing so? One way or another, it’ll be related to the per-child cost of education.

During oral arguments before the court, the state’s attorney presented a sophisticated and, while perhaps not easy to understand, a nonetheless understandable point about marginal cost, a number that is far more important than average cost.

Justice Paul Pfeifer’s response was classic: “I’m not buying the mathematical argument.”

That’s all. He didn’t bother to refute the argument, answer it or even explore it. He just didn’t want to hear it. Math? Yuck. No recalcitrant junior high school student could have said it better.

By all means, don’t bother Justice Pfeifer with math. For that matter, don’t bother him with facts. Indeed, given Justice Pfeifer’s hearty activism, you need not even bother him with law — although what that leaves as a basis for his decisions is hard to say.

It’s a safe bet, though, that however he and his colleagues reach their conclusions, they’ll be doing it for the children.

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