Redoubled efforts, forgotten aims

Per-pupil spending has nothing to do with quality education, says leader of a conservative group in Nevada.

“Fanaticism,” wrote philosopher George Santayana in 1905, “consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” That’s a good description of Nevada’s current education hurly-burly.

The chronically reform-resistant state board of education beats the drum for $851 million for “school improvements.” State school superintendents—mavens of institutional sclerosis—lobby for $904 million more in taxes for their paper-shuffling swamps. An alliance of Nevada leftist groups pouts that Silver State taxes should be boosted by $932 million.

Special interests want higher taxes on Nevadans—without education reform. This coordinated hard-sell campaign insinuates that anyone not eager to throw money into this rich but dysfunctional system is a Bad Person.

When the U.S. Census Bureau recently released its annual average of per-pupil spending in public schools, Nevada Assembly-woman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, went into paroxysms of indignation: “We’ve done nothing to stop our fall to the bottom of this and every other list, and that’s shameful. Where is our commitment to our children?”

Unfortunately for the guilt trip on which Assemblywoman Giunchigliani wants to take you, innumerable studies have established that there is no positive correlation at all between per-pupil spending and student learning.

Why should there be? “Per-pupil spending” is just non-capital spending for government schools divided by the number of children forced to attend those grim factories. It has virtually nothing to do with the amount of intelligent care invested by humane, professional teachers in serious, seeking students.

Actually, there is a negative correlation between per-pupil expenditures and educational achievement. Consider the three states or districts with the lowest per-pupil expenditures and the three with the highest. The three lowest were Utah, Mississippi and Arizona, where average annual per-student expenditure was $4,793. The three highest were New Jersey, New York and the District of Columbia, where annual per-student expenditure was $10,085.

Yet, the mean scores achieved on the SAT-1 verbal test by students in the low per-pupil-spending states significantly exceeded the comparable scores from the high states—551 to 502. It was a similar story with the SAT-1 math scores: The three states with the lowest spending yield an average mean score of 547. The three states with the highest spending could only muster an average mean of 502.

So what is the relationship between a state spending less and yet its children learning more? While the subject is complex, one key variable seems to be the local power of national teacher unions. Happy school systems are not fruitful organizing sites for unions. The presence of a national union suggests that a local school system is already more or less dysfunctional before the union arrives. Then, problems only increase. Union officials force up personnel spending and advance union power. While more money is spent, educational quality declines and political barriers to reform intensify. Administrators and politicians adapt to these new powers, finding it more practical to avoid “controversy.”

We get redoubled efforts and forgotten aims.