Nickels and Dimes and PPEs

Nickels DimesThere are numbers, and then there are numbers, some of which are of marginal utility.  For example, there’s the much used and abused “per pupil expenditure.”  Nevada’s isn’t a particularly appealing number:

“Nationally, average per-pupil spending was $10,658 during fiscal year 2011. Expenditures ranged from $6,326 in Utah to $20,793 in Washington, D.C.  Nevada spent an average of $8,411 per student in that time frame, $2,247 less than the national average.”  [LVSun]

Generally speaking, the PPE number gets bandied about as though it’s “too high” when it’s above the national median, or “too low” when it’s below.  The point should be that the local situation will determine the financial needs of school districts, and the local financial needs will drive the allocation of the funding available.

About the worst application of the PPE number is to plant it next to a table of numbers showing testing results for K-12 youngsters and then grandly announcing we’re “spending too much,” or “too little” or often from conservative quarters — “we’re not getting enough from our money.”  Here’s why this argument is counter-productive:

1. PPE numbers may incorporate funding which does not directly affect instruction.  Granting that better instruction, and better learning take place in well lit, comfortable, well furnished surroundings,  a district which has major maintenance and construction needs may have “instructional costs” elevated by the expenses associated with upgrading ventilation, heating, cooling, and furnishing projects.   We could further confuse the issues by incorporating extended ARRA funding included in 2010-11 school district budgets and thereby increase the numerator in our fractional result.  About the best we can estimate is reported in the Nevada Education Data Book (pdf 2013)  that on a statewide basis of the $8321 per pupil expended, $4,944 is categorized as instructional expense, $400 is for “support,” $886 is spent for operations, and $734 is spent for administration.

2. The PPE numbers do not illustrate the demographic elements which inform school district spending.   The Data Book (pdf) shows 437,149 children enrolled in Nevada schools.   327,770 are enrolled in Clark County Schools, another 66,137 in Washoe County Schools, and the remainder 51,830 in the rural counties.   We need to scroll further into the report to discover that Clark County’s enrollment includes about 44% Hispanic students, and 13% African American.  By contrast, Storey County records 10% Hispanic and 1% African American students.

No leap is required to conclude Nevada, and Clark County specifically, has a higher number of “limited English proficient enrollment.” (19%)  And, 50% of Nevada enrollees are eligible for free or reduced price school lunches.  Clearly, not all Hispanic youngsters are burdened with limited proficiency in English, and not all African American or Hispanic youngsters come from families functioning at or near the poverty line.  However, it would be the height of naivety to deny that higher percentages of ethnic minority students means that the allocation of resources necessary for a district with an 85% white population will be the same as one which has a 44% Hispanic population.

In short, the PPE only tells us what has been spent in general terms, and doesn’t tell us a thing about what needs to be spent.

3. Money will not solve educational issues — but it will purchase the resources necessary to meet them.   What we need to decide is what we want the educational system to do.   The answer thereof is “Curriculum, Curriculum, Curriculum.  There appear to be more “stressors” than solutions.

(a) College Prep v. Vocational:  It doesn’t require too many joint meetings between collegiate and secondary instructors to figure out that what the collegiate ranks would dearly love is to have every youngster they enroll competent to pass Calculus 101, U.S. History 101, and English 101-102.  It requires about the same amount of meetings to discover that the secondary instructors are talking about the youngsters who are not among the 120,000 students enrolled in any of the 21 degree granting institutions in the state. [Census pdf]  Let’s use math as a quick example of the stressor: A standard diploma from a Nevada high school requires 3 units of mathematics. What math?  Algebra I, II, and Geometry?  Pre-Algebra, Algebra, General Business Math?   Someone is going to be dissatisfied with any decision.

(b) What constitutes “success?”  Is it getting a “300” on the Reading, Science, and Mathematics exit examination, or a “7” on the writing exam? Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for youngsters being able to identify “tone” in a written piece, and I’m certainly emphatic about young people being taught to recognize propaganda when they read it.  Recognizing dramatic irony is fine, too.  However, what happens if, as an employer, I am primarily interested in hiring a young person who can follow written directions?  Who understand what is required and can fill out an accident report?  Or, who can comprehend what I mean when I say on an application form that the job I am offering requires “particular attention to personal hygiene?”   On the other hand, reading and comprehending a piece of 500 to 1200 words shouldn’t be too much to ask.   The question now evolves into Who is getting What for their tax dollars?

4. The next question is related to both the “success” questions and the demographic issues.  What does the PPE tell us about the connection between the student and the instruction?  Very Little.   A school system with a high number of limited English proficiency students which allocates its best resources toward the development of college prep coursework is probably going to have all manner of graduation rate problems or testing ‘failures.’  If the course-work itself doesn’t meet the needs of the student population it’s hard to imagine any other result.   A school system which allocates scarce resources into remedial coursework will undoubtedly leave some otherwise talented students behind their cohorts in a collegiate setting.

There are some tough questions to be asked and answered, philosophically and practically, and using simplistic references to an equation in which money = quality isn’t helpful.   There are two questions which should be asked: If we say that education is the best gift we can bestow on our children, then how much are we willing to pay for it? Secondly, how do we properly allocate and evaluate the expenditures?

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