You can’t handle the truth!

March 12, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A Few Good Men was a good movie that could have been a great movie. On the good side, no romance between Demi Moore and Tom Cruise, and very well done court room drama. On the bad side, the director had to make sure that we understood that Jack Nicholson’s character was the bad guy by having him make crude remarks to Demi Moore. It was like a 30 second summary of Titanic where Leo’s arrogant rival tells Kate Winslet “I’m going to slap you now so that the audience will understand that I’m the bad guy.”

My favorite part of that summary by the way was the meeting between Leo and Kate’ s characters. Leonardo says “I’m pretty!” Kate says “I’m pretty too!” Leo responds “Yes, you are pretty, but not as pretty as me.”

But I digress.

Out here among the cacti, we have a pervasive myth that Arizona public schools are desperately underfunded to the tune of $6,500 per pupil. After the officials report this hideous number to the NCES, then comes the claim that Arizona is ranked 49th in per capita spending. This however is an exercise in issue framing.

As it turns out, Arizona has plenty of company in claiming to be 49th in spending. Another problem- when you take the total amount of revenue and divide it by the total number of students, you get a figure of $9,707 per pupil. Strange- a more than $3,000 per pupil difference…

Now the Arizona legislature’s Joint Legislative Budget Board has produced a document regarding expenditure per pupil in the state. Curiouser and curiouser, but it gives a figure of $9,399 per student for the year before the revenue per pupil figure of $9,707.

I had previously said that this meant that Arizona was not 49th, but somewhere in the middle. An ongoing discussion with a progressive blogger in Arizona, however, has led me to realize that I have little confidence in any state’s spending numbers, other than those of Texas, which can easily be double checked.

Jay successfully pushed a method for calculating dropout rates that looked at the size of a student cohort over time. Perhaps we need to do something similar for spending per pupil figures. Let’s keep it simple: add up all the spending, divide by the number of students.

Otherwise, you get a pig’s breakfast where people down in the basement of state education departments decide this type of funding counts, but this kind of funding doesn’t. Some states report a total number, while others report some interpretation of a spending number as rendered by Bureaucrat X.

%d bloggers like this: