On Education Funding, Ideology Often Beats Accuracy

Just as there are only a few people who seem to want to know how sausage is made, there seems to be a distinct lack of interest in figuring out how experts come up with the numbers to describe how much our government spends on our schools. When education experts tell us that we spend [...]

Just as there are only a few people who seem to want to know how sausage is made, there seems to be a distinct lack of interest in figuring out how experts come up with the numbers to describe how much our government spends on our schools.

When education experts tell us that we spend this or that much on education on the per-student basis, where do these amounts come from and – more importantly – exactly how accurate are they?

Jason Bedrick, writing for Cato@Liberty, explains why we should care. Earlier this month, when doing a piece on how much public schools actually cost in Colorado, a reporter asked two people from different sides of the ideological divide to give their estimate. Kathleen Gebhardt, the lead attorney in Colorado’s education adequacy lawsuit, said $6,474 per student. Ben DeGrow, senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute said “closer to $10,000.”

This seemed like an ideal opportunity for a closer look to determine which one of this answers was the closest to the truth. Yet, instead the reporter seemed to have thrown up his proverbial hands, leaving the viewer with the assumption that numbers – much like policy papers – are subject to change based on one’s ideological leanings.

That, however, isn’t the truth.

After the segment aired, DeGrow explained how he and his counterpart arrived at their figures. Gebhardt’s figure didn’t account for all sources of tax revenue. In DeGrow’s words, “It is equivalent to counting only the primary breadwinner’s earnings as household income, even though about half as much more money comes in through a side job, home business and investment earnings.”

Part of the problem seemed to have been the poorly worded question on the part of the reporter. In asking how much is spent in Colorado in education, what he really wanted to know was how much money the state allocated to the school districts — but even that question doesn’t produce the whole truth. Those interested in the whole truth need to ask how educating an average Colorado student costs in total.

And the total number is even higher than the ones provided both by DeGrow and Gebhardt. According to the data provided by the Colorado Department of Education, Colorado’s average per-student spend is in excess of $12,000 per year.

But why mislead the public about how much public schools actually cost? The penultimate paragraph provides a clue:

On Election Day, voters in 31 school districts around the state will decide whether to raise property taxes to pump an additional $1 billion into the school system in the form of bond issues for buildings or mill levy overrides for operating budgets.

And what did voters decide?

Tuesday’s election saw voters in 29 Colorado schools districts approve 34 bond issues and operating revenue increases – plus one sales tax hike – worth just over $1 billion.

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