Tuesday, October 8, 2013

How Much Is Too Much To Spend On A “Free” Education?

They are questions that date back to the first tax proposal dedicated to paying for public education: 

How much money are you willing to spend to ensure a “free” public education system? 

How much is too much?

And, should government be involved in Education at all?

In Jefferson Parish, is almost $547 Million for approximately 46,100 students too much, just right or not enough?

What about $524 Million?

And, are we seeing tangible results for our spending? Does class size impact learning and results?

The Jefferson Parish Public School System is the largest in the state. Total expenditures for the 2012-13 school year were $546,810,522. That is larger than the budget for Jefferson Parish and the City of Kenner combined.

The 2012-13 expenditures work out to a spend of $11,949 per pupil. If you consider an average of 20 students in a classroom, that works out to $239,980 per classroom. Even considering a high figure of 1/4th of that figure ($60,000) going towards teacher salary and benefits, there’s still a significant amount of spending in the JPPSS that is not going directly towards classrooms and teachers.

School Superintendent Dr. James Meza, the School Board, business groups and elected officials have put on a full court press to espouse the virtues of renewing a property tax millage that failed this spring. Like many politicians do when their pots of gold are threatened, Meza is forecasting doom and gloom if the tax millage fails.

“The millage produces about $23 million in day-to-day operating funds and is critical to JPPSS in many ways. The loss of this existing stream of funding would have a drastic impact on classroom and school operations, as it pays for essentials such as teacher salaries, pre-kindergarten classes, and arts, music, and athletics programs.”

If 79% of Your Work Was Average or Below Average, Would You Deserve A Raise or a Pay Cut?

While it’s true that the School System has made some marginal improvements, the wholesale improvements that were expected by Jefferson Parish residents and promised by Business Groups who supported the overhaul of the School Board, have yet to materialize.

In 2011-2012, fully 79% of students in the JPPSS were at schools that were ranked at the “C” or below level. In real numbers, that’s 35,653 of the system’s then 45,246 students.

JPPSS officials and School Board members are now claiming that 33% of schools are now at the “A” or “B” level, but that claim cannot yet be substantiated.

Even if you use the rosy numbers touted by the JPPSS, that still means 2/3rds of the public schools in Jefferson Parish are still ranked “C” or below. 

Another metric shows similar, mediocre results.

The State LEAP test grades students in 4 categories: English/Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies.

The 2012-13 test results show that 3rd grade JPPSS students are below the state average of “At or Above Basic” in 3 of the 4 tested categories; 5th grade students are below the state average in 2 of the 4.

6th and 7th grade JPPSS students taking the LEAP test are “At or Above Basic” in none of the 4 categories tested and, in several categories, significantly below the state average.

Despite these rather dismal numbers, the JPPSS still commissioned a report from GCR (which seems to do every government funded study in Jefferson Parish) to paint a rosy picture of the JPPSS. The headline: “Third Party Evaluation Highlights Gains In JPPSS”.

Contrary to what the JPPSS would like you to believe, a group that is paid to do a study is hardly objective.

Graduation Rates Increase – But Is That a False Metric?

School Board officials proudly point out that JPPSS had a graduation rate of 70.3% in 2011-12, up from 60.4% in 2006-07. However, they fail to point out that JPPSS schools received an influx of students from closed Orleans Parish schools as flooded Orleans Parish residents migrated to Jefferson Parish.

After 4 years of hovering in the 60.4% - 61.5% range, in 2010-11, the graduation rate spiked to 67.3% up from 61.5% in 2009-10.

As those students who entered the JPPSS after Hurricane Katrina matriculated and passed through the system, a natural increase in graduation rates was inevitable, thus pointing to improved graduation rates is a false argument.

Borrow, Spend and Then Borrow Some More

In addition to consistently having one of the largest operating budgets in the state, the JPPSS also has some of the largest debt of any school system as well.

Since 2005, the JPPSS has sold almost $221 Million in bonds costing taxpayers $11.7 Million annually in principal and interest.

Earlier this year, the School Board approved the sale of an additional $50 Million in bonds, the bulk of which will go towards funding new computer equipment and software due to the implementation of Common Core. 

These 20-year bonds will add over $3 Million to JPPSS’s annual debt service.

More Teachers and Smaller Class Sizes Yields Better Results, Right?

According to information from the JPPSS, they employ 5,825 full-time employees, yet only slightly more than half, 2,989, are teachers.

But, when discussing the upcoming millage renewal, Superintendent Meza says that, if the millage fails and the $23 Million in revenue from the millage disappears, teachers and proposed teacher raises will need to be cut. However, he fails to explain why he would cut teachers and not the other half of the JPPSS employment or some of the 209 central office employees the JPPSS has.

Meza also says that class sizes will increase. However, he fails to cite any empirical data that shows a significant difference in learning achievement if a class increases from 15 to 20 students, or even 25 students.
In fact, one national school leader suggests that schools and pupils would be better off if class sizes were larger.

Eva Moskowitz is the Founder and CEO of Success Charter Network, a group of 7 charter schools in Harlem and the Bronx.

Ms. Moskowitz contends that there are several factors that need to be considered when discussing improving educational standards and achievement including recruiting and hiring quality teachers, having adequate supplies and several other items. Class size is not one of them.

“Some proponents contend that because research shows reducing class size is beneficial, spending on this should be prioritized over anything that is unsupported by research,” Ms. Moskowitz wrote in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post. “That’s a neat rhetorical trick but unsound logic.”

“At Harlem Success Academy Charter School, where we’ve gotten some of the best results in New York City, some classes are comparatively large because we believe our money is better spent elsewhere. In fifth grade, for example, every student gets a laptop and a Kindle with immediate access to an essentially unlimited supply of e-books. Every classroom has a Smart Board, a modern blackboard that is a touch-screen computer with high-speed Internet access. Every teacher has a laptop, video camera, access to a catalogue of lesson plans and videotaped lessons.

Outfitting a classroom this way costs about $40,000, or $13,500 amortized over three years. That’s how much New York charter schools receive per pupil annually, so we can afford this by just increasing class size by a single student.”

In Jefferson Parish, despite spending almost $12,000 per pupil, many of our teachers still purchase supplies for themselves and their students. Businesses and civic groups hold school supply drives to ensure that students have pencils.

In an interview on National Public Radio (NPR), Ms. Moskowitz summarizes it by saying:

“So we’ve got to weigh, what are our priorities? And I’m arguing that small class size is by no means the only priority.”

So, if an average classroom increasing from 20 to 22 or even 24 or 25, doesn’t impact learning as much as other factors like hiring and supplying quality teachers and properly allocating and spending the school board budget, shouldn’t that be the emphasis of the JPPSS instead of pushing to renew taxes while continuing to borrow Millions and using tax revenue on interest payments?

So, How Much Is Too Much?

As noted above, in 2012-13 the JPPSS spent $11,949 per student. Removing the $23 Million in revenue from the October 19th Millage would drop the spend per student to $11,347 or about $600 per student. Hypothetically, if we use a figure of 20 students per classroom, this would result in $12,000 less per classroom, a number that could easily be made up by increasing class size by 1 student, without the reduction in teachers, teacher salaries or the “drastic impact on classroom and school operations” forecast by Superintendent Meza.

Meza contends that renewing the millage will cost the average homeowner about $.14 per day. However, since Jefferson Parish has a higher than average percentage of students attending private school, a parent paying private school tuition and property taxes for a below average, albeit slightly improving, school system might find a better use for those 14 pennies each day.