Tuesday, December 10, 2013
"Clearly, the status quo in education is not working."
-- Maine Gov. Paul LePage
Never has the need for changing our system of education been more important. This assertion is true first and foremost because without such change our children face a future of diminished opportunity, declining incomes and growing personal frustration. It is also true, however, because nowhere but within our existing education spending is there the means to finance the required change. Consider the following comparison.
In 2010, the latest year for which national, state-by-state census data are available, Maine ranked 42nd in elementary and secondary school enrollment relative to population, with 142 school enrollees for every 1,000 people in the general population. This was 9 percent below the national average of 156. At the same time, Maine ranked 13th in operational spending per student at $12,736, 17 percent above the U.S. average of $10,863. Even more telling, we ranked 8th in the nation in operational spending as a share of personal income, at $50 per $1,000 of personal income, 14 percent above the national average of $44.
In short, we rank near the bottom in terms of students as a share of overall population and near the top in noncapital, operations spending as a share of personal income. Seems we're really committed to our K-12 education.
It is therefore somewhat embarrassing to see in a newly released study from the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance -- Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance -- that Maine ranks second from the bottom among states with respect to test score improvement over the period 1992 to 2011. Without delving into the hornet's nest of test scores as a measure of education quality, it is still simply impossible to view this constellation of facts as anything other than unsustainable. We simply cannot continue on our current course. We simply can't afford it. Education, like health care and retirement, is part of an entitlement trinity we have to change not just by tinkering around the edges, but by rethinking from the ground up.
And that rethinking has to include what we do with the money we're now spending. In Maine, between 2006 and 2010, our population grew by 0.9 percent, our K-12 enrollment fell by 3.3 percent, but the money we spent on operating that K-12 educational system grew by 12.4 percent, increasing by more than $264 million to over $2.4 billion. In economic terms, the marginal cost of losing 6,507 students was $264 million, over $41,000 per departed student.
Would adding an additional student bring back $41,000? Of course not. Costs go up because people get raises and because the unit cost of operating in the same facilities with fewer students inevitably rises. All the more reason to change. And change can't be effected through forced regionalization. In fact, we're seeing just the opposite as recently consolidated school unions rush to undo the consolidations they've just completed.
Meaningful change can occur only if we fundamentally restructure the way we "do" education. In a sparsely populated, rural place like Maine, that means radically increasing the power of individual teachers through digital connections. And this does not mean laptops in the hands of students. It means putting the effectiveness of high production value (and therefore expensive) educational experiences in the hands of individual teachers through remote formats. It also means changing the tedium of test preparation and evaluation from teachers to software, thus enabling more precise, student-driven, educational strategies. The "big data" analytics now mined so effectively by Google, Amazon and their ilk needs to be deployed in ways that expand productivity gains from shopping to learning.
And where's the money to do this to come from you ask? How about from some of that $265 million we've spent over the past four years to educate 6,500 fewer kids?
Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public-policy research firm. He can be reached at: