One of the people I know at work might be charitably described as a “curmudgeon.” I’m being charitable, since my own description tends to run on the side of NSFW. The title – and the idea for this – came from one of his gripes. This is a very rural area, with a widely-dispersed population. The local school district has around 200 students. Total. It’s not a “small” district in terms of area, but because of the nature of this area, there’s just not a lot of kids. Which was the source of their gripe. You see, they weren’t happy about the school tax (it’s a property tax in NY), and the budget for the school. Which isn’t unusual. What made their gripe stand out was the idea that since the school district had “only 200 students” it should therefore cost much less. Their thinking was in terms of “unit cost” – or “spending per student.”
Yes, if you want to go that route, this district does spend a lot per student compared to a large school district. But what was being overlooked was that this small school district has the same requirements as a large school district. You still need a building, which needs to be heated, lit, and maintained. You need teachers. You need books. School buses. All the things that most schools have. In fact, most of it is required by state law, and there is no distinction in the law that says a small school doesn’t have to offer English, Math, or Science classes or certain services. School district voters usually find this out when they vote down a budget, and the school has to go on an “austerity budget,” which cuts all discretionary spending. The “discretionary” spending for most school districts turns out to be a fairly small percentage of the overall budget. Things like sports, music, art, and field trips are all considered discretionary.
Which is why the unit cost mentality doesn’t work when it comes to schools. Are there cost savings to be had? Given the nature of this area, the answer is not many. People here tend to squeeze the tax dollar until it screams, but few advocate dropping sports or other facets of the discretionary budget. There’s not a lot of “fat” that can be cut, and unless someone can come up with an idea that magically reduces things while giving the same – or better – educational results, it’s not likely to change. But trying to use the per-student cost as a judgment factor is misleading. A school is not a store.