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An education in spending

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POSTED: October 13, 2010 11:01 a.m.
Of all the things the Newark, N.J., school system needs, the last of them is more money. Newark spends more per pupil than any other city in the country, and gets dismayingly little for it. For $22,000 per pupil — more than twice the national average — it graduates half its students.
It’s easy to imagine Newark spending $44,000 per pupil and arriving at the same dismaying outcome. Nonetheless, billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is showering money on a school system that’s about as short on cash as he is. His $100 million grant is a vote of confidence in Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, both compelling reformers. Even if they had a clear plan to fix Newark’s schools, though, they wouldn’t need to add another $100 million on top of the system’s $940 million annual budget to do it.
In microcosm, the Newark gift captures this moment in education reform. There’s earnest chatter about change and even some progress on the ground, at the same time that the bloated, ineffectual and corrupt status quo has never been more flush in federal dollars. The stimulus bill devoted $100 billion to education (about $80 billion of it for K-12). As Reason magazine notes, that’s twice the Department of Education’s annual budget.
These funds have kept school systems from having to undertake wrenching changes, or any changes at all. They have helped goose federal spending on education from $37.5 billion in the last year of the Bush administration to $88.8 billion in the second year of the Obama administration, according to the calculations of Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas.
While the private economy has shed 8 million jobs in a work force of 150 million during the downturn, the $550 billion education system added jobs. It’s the wonder of the American economy, growing during recessions and regardless of its quality. If everyone in America were a teacher, we’d be a worker’s paradise.
The spending would be justified if it correlated with outcomes. It doesn’t. We have tripled per-pupil spending during the past four decades while results have largely stayed flat. The money has been poured into personnel, on the theory that more teachers equal more learning. If the teachers are unexceptional, that’s not true. The compensation structure of teachers — with a large portion of their pay devoted to pensions and benefits — tends to attract careerists looking to settle into jobs for life.
The resulting insular culture of nonaccountability is nearly impossible to crack. In Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has made an impressive go of it. She’s the heroine of the new, buzz-generating documentary “Waiting for Superman.” The film’s release may turn out only to be a perverse prelude to Rhee’s defenestration, since a political backlash against her system-rattling reforms has unseated her mayoral patron, Adrian Fenty.
Whether the likes of Rhee succeed or not, we can be sure that the maw of the education system will continue to gobble up whatever resources are thrown at it. For decades, national education reform has meant more centralization and more federal spending. Maybe it’s time to try the opposite.

Lowry is editor of the National Review.
 

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