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If $10,000 a student per year isn't enough . . . How much is?
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By Lars Larson

Oregon taxpayers fund kindergarten through 12th grade education to the tune of $10,000 per student per year. That's what we spend on public education in government schools (let's not call them public . . . nearly every school is open to the public. Only government schools are run by the government).

People challenge me nearly every day on that particular issue. Most of them have a reason for not liking that number. Most of them have not been told the truth about the cost of public education in Oregon. Most of them buy the line that's fed to them on a regular basis by TV, newspapers and (yes gasp!) some radio stations (but not Newsradio 750 KXL).

I'm going to make the case for the truth of the $10K number right here.

Let's start with a little budget honesty.

The government schools run two sets of books. There are good reasons for doing this from an accounting standpoint. But it's often used to deceive the public.

The school budget most people hear about is called the "general fund". The general fund is the money local governments have some choice in spending. A school board can spend general fund money on salaries, health care, books, and computers or just about anything they want.

The budget that I consider the real budget is known in government circles as the "all funds" budget. It includes all of the "general fund" money plus other money that's dedicated to specific uses.

Here's where the dishonesty comes in. The "all funds" budget is always bigger than the general fund. For example, the Portland public schools have a general fund of about $330 million. But the all funds budget is $560 million give or take.

If you ask how much money it costs to educate a child in a government school, Portland public schools will give you a number that's somewhere in the range of $5,000 to $7,000 or so.

It's simply not true.

Divide the "all funds" budget by the student population of the Portland schools, for example; you come up with an average (and frankly stunning) figure of $11,558 per student per year.

Now, that's Portland . . . but what about the rest of the state? The Oregon School Boards Association (which represents the boards that run every school district in Oregon), less than two years ago, commissioned a study of school finance. Here's what the OSBA study found:

Total expenditures per average daily attendee is $10,037 in 2002. "In 2002, total expenditures per ADA slightly exceeded $10,000."

So how do school administrators tell taxpayers that the costs are 50% to 100% lower than that? It involves a little mathematical magic.

School administrators don't like to talk about the number of students who actually sit in classrooms on a daily basis. They like to "weight" the numbers.

If you thought that the ENRON scandal involved some funky math, consider these numbers:

  • Every child in kindergarten is counted as a child and a half (source OSBA).

  • Every child who is defined as "living in poverty" is counted as one and a quarter students.

  • Every child who has been placed on an IEP (individualized educational program) is counted as two students.

If you could do a quick walk through of Oregon's nearly 200 school districts and you counted up the number of warm bodies you saw on an average day, the number would come out at about 480,000 on an average day (source OSBA). But if you look at the ADMW (average daily measurement, weighted) that the schools like to use at budget time, you would count 650,000 students.

If you divide the "general fund" budgets of Oregon schools by the ADMW you can create an "average" cost per student as low as $5,000.

That's the number you tell the taxpayers. But it's not honest.

The honest number (source OSBA) is $10,000 per student per year.

We're told in Oregon that schools are bulging with 25 to 30 students per classroom. That means the average classroom has at least $250,000 worth of education resources available (25 students times $10,000 per student). The average classroom teacher makes just under $50,000 per year. Benefits add another 38% (source OSBA). That means a maximum of $69,000 is being spent on the person who does the teaching. Special education costs would take another $32,500 per classroom.

English as a second language is another funding problem for Oregon. For every child who speaks Vietnamese, Spanish or Russian, the state allocates 50% more money in the state funding formula (roughly $7,500 from the state treasury instead of the $5,000 it provides for mainstream children).

It's not necessary.

Half a dozen years ago, California voters . . . fed up with their politicians' lack of action on the problem, voted to demand that children be placed in full immersion English classes for the one year it takes most of them to transition from a foreign language to English. It worked. Ten percent of Oregon's school kids are in ESL classes - almost 50,000 students who cost 50% more than necessary for years. It's an extra burden of $125 million a year that we could be freed from in just one year if we followed California's lead.

We fund our schools well. The money is not necessarily managed well. There are easy steps we could take beginning tomorrow to fix Oregon's education problems, but throwing more money at them is not the answer.

Lars Larson is a Portland radio talk show host. Website: http://www.larslarson.com/ (This editorial originally appeared in the Argus Observer, Ontario, Oregon, 2-23-2006.)

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