"To give away money is an easy matter ... and in any man's power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, for what purpose and how, is neither in every man's power nor an easy matter. Hence it is that such excellence is rare, praiseworthy and noble."
Was Aristotle ever wrong?
In 1993 Walter H. Annenberg made a $500 million gift to public school education in the U.S. At the time, a 30-year veteran of the Detroit school district said the money would make no difference. He was right. Here’s the word from a year 2000 analysis listed by ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center): “…these grants did not accomplish more…because the idea on which they were based, that public schools lack expertise and that talented and motivated outsiders working with the system can provide it, is wrong.”
And alas, equally wrong is to expect school systems themselves to change (quod erat demonstrandum, I believe, in the video “Stupid in America.” For more on that, see my March 24 post, "Dumb as Dirt," below).
Barack Obama came to the presidency promising education reform, and he continues to promise it. Yet “reform” is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholders President Obama seeks to please or appease are the leadership of the National Education Association and education school gurus. Take a minute here to read the response of Kevin Ryan, professor emeritus at Boston University, to the president’s plan on Mercatornet, an ezine that you would do well to bookmark: http://tinyurl.com/b7njuo. And indulge me and read also my comment to Ryan’s piece.
Now when that wise Detroit teacher predicted Walter Annenberg’s philanthropy would be wasted, he said further that, from his experience, three things are necessary for learning: a [good] teacher, a blackboard, and willing students. The easiest of these to provide is the blackboard.
A 2007-2008 survey of new school costs in Virginia (http://tinyurl.com/cljpxy) pegged these as averaging $20,554 per pupil in elementary school; $36,701 per middle school pupil, and $26,776 per high school student. And of course there is a costly yearly maintenance budget for facilities.
Contrast these expenditures with the cost of charter school facilities, often housed in rented store fronts or closed public schools. In Oakland, CA, Ben Chavis took over a Native American charter middle school, housed in an old church, and doubled student achievement (listen to an NPR report, http://tinyurl.com/cveq4n). While stressing academics, Chavis required students to work. He didn’t hire maintenance staff; he had his kids clean up hallways and set up tables for lunch etc. Lacking a gymnasium, his students took timed jogs around the block.
There really is not a direct relationship between the cost of an education, the money spent per pupil, and the quality of learning. Last April, Andrew J. Coulson of the Cato Institute pointed out that the annual per pupil cost in the abysmal District of Columbia public school district (about $24,600 per pupil) exceeds the average tuition cost of private schools in the area by about $10,000. Go to http://tinyurl.com/coo25l to check this out.
And then there is Kansas City, and the saga of how not to spend money. The following comes from a Cato Institute policy analysis, http://tinyurl.com/d2nka:
“In 1985 a federal district judge took partial control over the troubled Kansas City, Missouri, School District (KCMSD) on the grounds that it was an unconstitutionally segregated district with dilapidated facilities and students who performed poorly. In an effort to bring the district into compliance with his liberal interpretation of federal law, the judge ordered the state and district to spend nearly $2 billion over the next 12 years to build new schools, integrate classrooms, and bring student test scores up to national norms.
“It didn't work. When the judge, in March 1997, finally agreed to let the state stop making desegregation payments to the district after 1999, there was little to show for all the money spent. Although the students enjoyed perhaps the best school facilities in the country, the percentage of black students in the largely black district had continued to increase, black students' achievement hadn't improved at all, and the black-white achievement gap was unchanged.”
And doubtless the Kansas City School Board was amazed to realize amenities such as an Olympic size swimming pool do not increase learning. Spending money foolishly on new and “up-to-date” school facilities is, to paraphrase Aristotle, as easy as passing a school bond issue (even it if takes a few election rounds to get approval), but it doesn’t guarantee money well spent. Most American public schools have more than adequate physical facilities, but most do a poor to mediocre job of fostering learning. The old one room school house with a blackboard and a minimal play yard did as well or better. One reason may well have been dedicated teachers, which will be the subject of a later post.