Ron Knecht: Let’s really do it for the children

This week, Assistant State Controller Geoff Lawrence and I will issue Controller’s Monthly Report No. 4, addressing K-12 spending and policy. Some highlights:

Extensive evidence shows much education spending does not significantly improve student achievement, while some quite effective policies are not costly. For example, Washington, D.C. spends the most per student, but has the worst performance on standardized tests. Utah and Idaho are in the bottom five in spending, but their students perform well.

International data also show no meaningful correlation between K-12 spending inputs and test-score outputs. The U.S. spends far more than most nations per child, but ranks low among developed countries for mathematics achievement and in the middle in reading, despite demographics that would predict high scores. This means we have not deployed our resources effectively.

Great teaching, not expensive gimmicks, produces great learning. A great teacher can help a child overcome many other disadvantages. The best teachers are able to deliver effective instruction even to large classes. Sixty years of national average pupil/teacher ratio reductions from 27 to 16 have made no difference in student achievement in reading and math.

So, the best way to improve education is to offer highly competitive salaries to attract the most talented educators and then to place many students with each one. Even the liberal Brookings Institution and the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development agree. And this is precisely the strategy followed by one of the highest achieving nations, South Korea.

It’s unfortunate, then, efforts to cut class size are so prevalent in U.S. politics. Greatly, this is due to the political marketing efforts of teacher unions to promote class-size reduction because smaller classes force schools to hire more dues-paying teachers. Since unions charge dues at a flat rate per member, union coffers grow by getting more lower-skilled and poorly paid teachers on the payroll than by using education dollars to pay great teachers more.

Teacher unions have led the charge to enact class-size mandates in at least 24 states, including Nevada, where they began in 1991 and now cost $381 million per biennium. This spending shows how unions have transformed our public education system from a program to serve our children and the public interest to one designed to benefit union bosses.

Class-size restrictions are not the only thing. Other programs enacted in Nevada in recent years also increase the number of teachers at the expense of paying great teachers better. In 2006, our legislature used a budget surplus to extend half-day kindergarten to full-day-K in some schools. This program has been gradually expanded, and Governor Sandoval now seeks to apply it to every school at a cost of $159 million in his proposed budget.

One classroom and one teacher can serve two half-day classes. But full-day-K requires double the number of teachers and classrooms, which motivates the full-day-K advocacy of teacher unions and construction firms alike. However, research, including some by the federal government, shows essentially no difference between half-day and full-day kindergarten students after the first four years of school.

Class-size reduction, all-day-K-for-all and state pre-school spending in Nevada and elsewhere have not produced meaningful gains in student achievement, but they voraciously consume precious education dollars that could be better spent elsewhere.

Unions’ costs to organize in the political process are lower than those of the public, and their effectiveness is higher because small groups are easier to mobilize. So, they can steer education spending to programs that benefit union bosses, not our children and the public interest. We must reject their self-interested pleas and embrace the low-cost alternatives I’ll discuss next time.

Ron Knecht is Nevada State Controller.


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