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Apr. 17th, 2012: - johnlocke.org Manage Subscriptions

What does a quality education cost?
By Dr. Terry Stoops

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Recently, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bob Etheridge declared that North Carolina "cannot have quality education on the cheap."  Is he right?

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CommenTerry

When Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bob Etheridge declared recently that the state "cannot have quality education on the cheap," I suspect that few people took notice.  For decades, the public has heard many versions of this comment from politicians and public school advocacy groups.

But as a former N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction, Etheridge does not get a pass.

So, is he right?  In other words, is it possible to obtain a quality education for less than the nearly $9,000 spent by North Carolina school districts to educate and accommodate the average public school student?

Just ask the parents of the nearly 84,000 children that are homeschooled in North Carolina how much they spend to educate their children every year.  North Carolinians for Home Education estimates that a typical homeschool curriculum will cost families between $100 and $500 per child per year.  This is consistent with the national average cost identified by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which estimates that the average homeschool family spends around $500 a year per child.  One particularly frugal parent reported that she was able to homeschool seven children at a time for less than $100 a year.

Moreover, I doubt that Etheridge was thinking about many of the 96,000 children who attend private schools.  Pricey private schools like Cary Academy and Charlotte Latin School are the exception, not the rule.   For example, students who attend any of the three Thales Academy campuses in Wake County receive a first-rate education for just $5,300 a year.  Likewise, many church-based or religious private schools, which represent seven out of ten private schools in North Carolina, offer outstanding academic programs for thousands less than the state average per-student expenditure.

Obviously, Etheridge did not have the hundreds of millions of children educated in other nations in mind either.  According to the latest available per-student expenditure statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States is at (or near) the top in per student spending among industrialized nations.  Similarly, North Carolina spends more to educate the average public school student than all but a handful of nations.  On average, the state spends thousands more than a number of countries, including Japan, Korea, Finland, and Canada, that routinely outperform the United States on international tests.

So, with the exception of homeschools, a majority of private schools, and most industrialized nations in the world, Etheridge is right -- you cannot have high quality education "on the cheap."

I suspect that Etheridge (erroneously) uses the word "education" to mean public schools, so let's take a look at them.

In his book Education Myths, Dr. Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas points out that the myth that public schools are underfunded is "simultaneously the most widely held idea about education in America and the one that is most directly at odds with the available evidence." (p. 8) Indeed, the vast majority of high-quality research studies conclude that there is no significant relationship between funding and student performance.  In inflation-adjusted dollars, per pupil spending has tripled over the last forty years.  During the same period, achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) barely budged.

Of course, career politicians like Etheridge are not always attentive to the research literature.  It is much easier to adopt the popular notion that less public school funding is bad and more is good.  And a popular notion it is!  A recent NC Policy Watch/Public Policy Polling survey asked North Carolinians if their local public schools should receive more funding, less funding, or about the same amount.  Predictably, two-thirds of respondents thought that schools should receive more funding.  Pollsters have received similar responses to that question since the debut of Kojak.

Rather than asking whether the state allocates "enough" resources to provide children a quality education, we should be asking "how" public schools spend their money.

Public school apologists and their allies routinely dismiss the "how" because it requires them to concede that educational productivity -- the relationship between inputs and outcomes -- matters.  The research on educational productivity, from researchers on the Right and the Left, provides compelling evidence that increasing student performance takes much more than reaching some arbitrary amount of spending.  It takes strategic investments (to use the Left's term) in exceptional people and proven practices.

Regrettably, well-intentioned conservatives too often allow the Left to debate the issue of education funding on their terms.  I, too, fall into this trap from time to time.  As such, the public has heard a lot of bickering about budgets, teaching positions, and rankings but little discussion about the lack of clear, convincing, and credible evidence that certain -- ultimately make-believe -- levels of education funding are necessary to maintain or raise student achievement.

Random Thought

Speaking of Kojak, "Who loves ya, baby?"

Facts and Stats

Bob Etheridge was elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1988 and 1992.

Mailbag

I would like to invite all readers to submit announcements, as well as their personal insights, anecdotes, concerns, and observations about the state of education in North Carolina.  I will publish selected submissions in future editions of the newsletter.  Anonymity will be honored.  For additional information or to send a submission, email Terry at tstoops@johnlocke.org.

Education Acronym of the Week

HSLDA -- Home School Legal Defense Association

Quotes of the Week

"In 1988 and 1992, he was elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction. As superintendent, he introduced an accountability program that improved our schools by raising standards of performance and giving parents the information they needed to better understand what was happening with the educating of their children."

- Bob Etheridge for Governor

"However, it also was clear that Superintendent Etheridge was not involved in the creation of the ABCs [of Public Education Accountability Program]. Senator [Leslie] Winner stated, 'None of these ideas were coming from him.' Dr. Jim Causby stated, 'My observation was at that time that Bobby had nothing to do with it.'"

- Louis M. Fabrizio, "The Creation and Evolution of North Carolina's ABCs Accountability Program and the Impact of No Child Left Behind -- A Case Study," Ph.D. dissertation, North Carolina State University, 2006, p. 54.

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