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Education Problems Not Due to Lack of Funding

February 25, 2010

Opinion Editorial

By Benjamin DeGrow
Re: “Tackling Tabor,” Feb. 18 online-only guest commentary.

Dr. Spencer Weiler argues that the courts need to repeal taxpayer protections in our state constitution for the sake of K-12 education funding.

Unfortunately, the flaws in his argument run deep, none more so than the claim that “the quality of education is directly correlated with the funding the state ensures for its public schools.” Research overwhelmingly rebuts this claim rather than supports it.

No one denies our K-12 public schools need a certain level of funding. Yet like many other pleas of school funding poverty, Dr. Weiler’s piece avoided real dollar figures. According to the Colorado Department of Education’s latest data, schools received about $12,000 per student in 2007-08.

Insisting more funding is needed based solely on claims of a perceived decline relative to the national average leaves out an important part of the tale. U.S. Department of Education data show the national average in total per-pupil spending grew by 42 percent above inflation between 1989 and 2007. Most of that growth can be attributed to adding new personnel (including administrators and support staff) at double the rate of student growth. Colorado’s spending meanwhile grew by a smaller but significant 25 percent.

To acknowledge this key fact is to confront the harsh truth that far more of our public education system’s shortcomings are tied to poor structural design than to revenue shortfalls — most notably, pay disconnected from positive student outcomes, legal restrictions on the supply of quality teachers, bureaucratic mandates, and continuing limitations on genuine competition through parental choice.

For the first time in many years, Colorado K-12 public schools indeed are experiencing real widespread budget cuts. For many employees the pain is very real. The same is true of many other Colorado families.

Yet through years of steadily rising revenues, lawmakers and education officials have not had enough incentive to deal with the long-term structural challenges that drive costs upwards without improving results. It is unfair and unproductive to scapegoat taxpayers for this reality. Now is the time for forward-thinking leaders and policy makers to seek out opportunities to seriously reform, or even transform, the system without waiting for an influx of new funding. The long-bright fiscal picture for K-12 schools looks gray for the foreseeable future.

Disagree? At least first be willing to share that Colorado spends well more than $10,000 per student. Let the taxpayers decide if that amount is enough before taking another pound of their flesh.

Ben DeGrow is an education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Golden.

This article originally appeared at DenverPost.com on February 25, 2010.