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GRAVES: Improving education a worthy investment

Joe Graves

Over the years, I have heard my share of criticisms of public education, along with various admonishments on how to set it aright. One of those that appeals to me is the view that I often hear from legislators and private business owners that school boards and superintendents ought to run schools more like private business and less like government offices. The notion is that schools need to decide how to focus on their mission, just what it is that constitutes "profit" as one example, rather than simply spending the budget handed to them each year and moving on.

Again, I actually appreciate that sentiment, though I have to admit I have noticed any number of times when the same people asking for this have then quickly reversed themselves when they didn't like the result of public schools actually acting like a private business. (One obvious example just now is the fight in Pierre over schools selling access to broadcast/netcast rights of their activities. Suddenly, some in the media aren't happy when schools seek out revenue sources other than the taxpayer. Another, though less directly related, is Congress' handling of the United States Postal Service, howling for it to operate in the black while attempting to block every cost-saving measure which negatively effects even a tiny minority of constituents.)

One superintendent, James Merrill of the Virginia Beach School District, took this admonition very much to heart. In fact, he took it way back to the whole underlying assumption of public schools and the likes of Thomas Jefferson who argued what I thought was pretty much the accepted consensus, that public schools exist and are supported by taxpayers because they provide a skilled workforce and an enlightened electorate which thereby provide societal benefits far beyond the investment society makes in them. Merrill suspected, and I may in fact agree with him, that at least some parts of our society are no longer so sure that the investment in public schools is in fact providing such a bargain. So Merrill paid a consultant, an economist, $20,000 to quantify the payout of training youth for at least the workforce. (That electorate part is a bit more difficult to quantify.)

What the economist found was that every dollar the school invested in students paid $1.50 in terms of the earning capacity of graduates, savings in later spending for health care and incarceration/criminal justice costs, and enhanced property values. Thus, schools are a solid investment. While, again, I agree that some parts of society do question the value of public school spending, I have to admit I still felt a wave of "duh" wash over me regarding the economist's conclusions. If free, public schools were not available, of course, some students would simply not be able to be educated and their life chances would be decimated, along with the private sector's ability to employ them. The American dream for many would become a pipe dream.

Less duh-inducing, however, was a related study by Eric Hanushek, a Hoover Institution researcher at Stanford who did the numbers on teacher effectiveness and its consequences for student earning power and student achievement. According to Hanushek, teachers in the top 15 percent of instructor effectiveness will, after teaching a student for only one year, add over $20,000 to such a student's life-time earning. Teachers in the lowest percentages of effectiveness have the opposite effect.

In fact, according to Hanushek, if American schools could replace the lowest 5-7 percent of their classroom teachers with just average instructors, the United States achievement rate would reach the level of Canada and Finland, two countries with what are considered to enjoy significantly higher and solid student achievement. Cranking out the numbers again -- these are economists after all -- doing so over the lifetime of children born today would increase the economic output of the United States by $112 trillion, a number so unbelievably high it could actually be the solution to the Everest-like national debt.

So for educators, the news from the world of the economist is mixed. Public schools are critical to the economic success of the United States in the future, something we have always just assumed but have not had proven (to the extent the social sciences ever prove anything). But if we assume these calculations to be reasonably accurate, they are a clarion call to the educational community to fix our problems. For the cost of continued apathy in the face of ineffective instruction is not just high; it is real and it is proven. Continuing to ignore such costs, in fact, quickly rises to the level of an ethical and moral transgression.