At the end of November, I wrote a post about “unit pricing” when it comes to education. You see it brought up a lot when people start talking about the cost of education. There’s an idea that somehow a school district should have a set cost per student. That is, if School District A is spending $10,000 per student, it’s doing better budgeting and cost control than District B which is spending $20,000 per student. It also creeps into “quality” measures, where you see people claiming that the higher cost is an indicator of a better education. Which makes it a convenient target for complaints when it comes to tax money. As I said back then, it’s not the entire story – or even correct. In one of the local papers, there was an story about the school costs, and the price per student. Interestingly, the same points came up.
As I said back then, certain things are requirements. The state requires that you have a certain base curriculum. There’s no getting around it. If I’m required to have 4 years of English, I have to have that whether I have one or one thousand students per year. The state also requires that teachers have certain qualifications and certifications, so I need to have teachers certified to teach said courses. All of which means that there’s a certain number of teachers your school district has to have, no matter what. In New York, each district is required to have a certified district superintendent, and yes, they get paid a lot – they’re in short supply. That’s in addition to a principal, janitors, secretaries, etc. Buildings have to be heated, school buses have to run, supplies have to be bought, and so on. That adds up to a “fixed cost.” Which is the point made here:
At Minerva, the school district has nearly 140 students and a $5.3 million budget. The cost per student is nearly $39,000.
Superintendent Timothy Farrell said the low enrollment drives up the cost per student, especially at small school districts.
These districts can cut only so much from the budget because districts must have a certain number of teachers and programs to meet state requirements, he said.
Minerva’s enrollment is low enough that it could double the population of students without an impact to the budget, he said
In other words, if they went from approximately 12 students per class to 24, the budget would still be mostly the same. They wouldn’t have to hire more teachers or more staff, although the supply and transportation budgets might go up a little. But what they have is 140 students, which is why their “cost per student” is so high. Not because they’re spending profligately, but because there’s a core minimum you have to have for a school district, a “floor” on spending.
Why are there so many small school districts? Why not merge them? The answer is that it’s not quite as simple as it seems. Most of these are “central school districts – that is, they’re mergers of other school districts. The school I graduated from was the result of a merger of 3 school districts, and a 4’th was merged into it after I left. Where I live now, the school is the result of 4 schools merging. In fact, as an elementary student, I went to one of them. But there are geographic limits. The nearest school districts now are least 25 miles away, and there are mountain roads between them which are seriously scary in winter.
The other reason is that at one time, they weren’t small. One of the factors mentioned in the article is something many of us have seen – the population exodus. School districts which 20 years ago had a relatively sizable student population no longer do. One school district mentioned has lost 25% of its student population in the last 5 years. Even before the recession struck the region was seeing this. Young families, and people starting families, were leaving the area, while those who remained has much smaller families. The school districts which in the 60’s and 70’s had to expand their facilities to handle the expanded student population now have facilities which hold half the students.
The solution to it is one that most people wish would happen. It relies on having a stable, relatively vibrant year-round economy that offers jobs and opportunities to young families, along with housing that’s affordable. That, unfortunately, is not what is. Many of the industries have left, farms are having their own problems, and in some areas the land bubble pushed property prices beyond the realm of “affordable.” It hasn’t been a quick process, although the recent recession increased it, but people have been leaving the region steadily, and the population that remains has been trending older – which means fewer children to be educated.
This is why the use of the “cost per student” metric is misleading when we’re talking about education costs. It’s easy to come up with, and convenient, but it doesn’t necessarily tell the entire story. It can end up being an “apples and oranges” comparison, and isn’t a reliable measure of “quality” or “out-of-control spending.” Unfortunately, that’s just how it is used, and people don’t stop to think that unit pricing education may not be the right way to go when it comes to making policy decisions.