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Why Does It Cost So Much to Educate a Child in America?

We've heard a lot recently about the I Promise School that LeBron James is helping to start in Akron, Ohio, and, in theory, it seems like a good idea: Gather up 240 at-risk students into a school that, in addition to academics, provides "wraparound" services like free breakfast and lunch and an extended school day and school year to keep kids off the streets.

The Akron Beacon Journal reports some staggering dollar amounts being poured into the school that will enroll 240 kids.

  • The school, which is public and part of Akron Public Schools, is costing the district nearly $2.9 million from its general fund to cover the cost of most salaries, benefits, supplies and other base elements of the school.
  • By 2023, Pendleton estimates the school will cost the district a cumulative total of $8.1 million, but he considers it a “long-term investment” that will lead to smaller class sizes in other schools, better enrollment and improved report card ratings, among other benefits.
  • The contributions to the school from the foundation and its partners has amounted to more than $2 million for its physical transformation, additional staffing for smaller class sizes, technology, wraparound supports and other upgrades for the first year, according to the foundation.
  • Peg’s Foundation is committing $2.5 million to the school over the next five years, primarily for its wraparound support services, but also for whatever the LeBron James Family Foundation deems necessary in its first few years.

Contrary to some reporting, the LeBron James Family Foundation isn't footing the bill for all of the school's operating expenses. The foundation has donated $2 million thus far for start-up costs and has committed to another $2 million a year as the school builds to capacity. Because IPS will be part of the Akron City School District, a little over 14,000 in tax dollars will be allocated for each pupil enrolled in the school—the same as for students in every other school in the district. Add to that the millions in charity dollars that will be poured into the school every year and the cost of each child's education begins to skyrocket.

The chart below shows how education dollars are spent in each state. Note that less than half of school expenditures go to pay teacher salaries—and that gray "other" category comes out to around 28 percent of the total amount spent.

All of which begs the question: why does it cost so much to educate a child in the United States? Answer: It doesn't. Or at least it shouldn't.

My husband and I managed to homeschool children through high school for less than $1000 per year—for two kids, both of whom had learning disabilities. Some years we spent a lot less than that by buying used curriculum or utilizing our public library or free online resources. When our kids were in middle school, a bunch of homeschooling families we knew started a co-op that met once a week. Students completed their assignments at home and met for classes taught by parents who volunteered for teaching duties. Only a couple of the parents were trained teachers, but we somehow managed to provide a fabulous—and challenging—educational experience for our kids. As I recall, each family paid administrative expenses of about $50 per year and another $300 or so for books. Catholic schools educate children for around $5000 a year and many private Christian schools do it for even less than that.

I understand that public schools have a lot on their plate. They've got buildings to build, services to provide for special needs students, buses to maintain, outlays for extracurricular activities, drug tests, metal detectors, active shooter training, and, of course, sex ed, bullying, and other social engineering programs. Those things don't come cheap (as they'll tell you over and over again while they're picking your pocket to get a new school levy passed).

Just take a look at this chart from the National Center for Education Statistics showing the armies of support staff schools are carrying in their budgets:

 

Let's say you wanted to go out and start a school and you had 30 students ready to enroll on the first day of classes. And say you were given $14,000 per student, so you'd have $420,000 to play around with. You could go for broke and pay a highly qualified teacher a $100,000 salary, spend $1000 per student on books, and still have almost $300,000 left to pay for building expenses or whatever.

You could probably run a pretty good school, don't you think?

Ah, but then say the state showed up at your door and said you are required to hire a counselor, a nurse, a social worker, a psychologist, an ESL/bilingual teacher, and a cadre of classroom aides. Even if you were able to hire all those people on your budget, that wouldn't be the end of it. The state would come around again to bill you for various "other" expenses, gobbling up more than one-fourth of your budget.  Suddenly you're broke and your school is relegated to the ash heap of history, despite your best intentions.

And therein lies the problem. Teacher salaries and benefits make up less than half of a school's budget; the rest is spent on "pupil services" and administrative costs (that vast gray area on the chart above). State and federal mandates, many of them bureaucratic in nature, cripple school budgets, leaving less money and less time for the business of educating children. Is it any wonder today's students are widely regarded to be dumber than previous generations? As schools increasingly take on the role that families were designed to play and become social services hubs, the focus becomes less about education and more about shaping society—with devastating results.

And lest you think that pouring more money into schools will improve outcomes, this chart from Cato Institute should disabuse you of that fanciful notion:

(Image credit: Cato Institute)

Back in the halcyon days of the early '70s, I attended K-6 elementary school in a dilapidated brick schoolhouse in Bedford, Ohio. There were two classes for every grade, with 30 students in each class most years. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Liptak, bless her heart, taught both morning and afternoon kindergarten, so she was responsible for 60 children. The main part of the building was built in 1905, so by the time I arrived at Central Elementary School in 1969 the school's best days were behind it. Compared to today's modern schools that resemble a cross between a prison and a recreation center, the school was a dump. The building had drafty old windows and we entered and exited the upper floors of the school via rusty iron fire escapes that shook and wobbled when we scampered down them during recess. There was no technology to speak of, unless you want to include the filmstrips we watched in the school's bomb shelter two or three times a year.

View from the Central Elementary School fire escape in Bedford, Ohio, in 1978.

Kids at the school came, almost without exception, from two-parent homes; many of them (including mine) were second-generation immigrant families. What the teacher said, went. If you got in trouble at school you were in even more trouble at home. If the teacher told your parents you were a brat, the parents believed the teacher. Spankings were not unheard of (especially once we got to middle school, where almost every student in the school was "boarded" at one time or another -- certainly most of the boys).

Somehow, we all got a good education. I dare say you could have dropped a few million dollars a year into the school's budget and we would not have been better educated.

Lack of money is not the problem with schools today. You could double or even triple school expenditures and, data shows, it would not improve performance. Most of the money would end up falling down those black holes called administrative services or it would be used to expand social engineering initiatives or after school babysitting services.

The dirty little secret that no one ever wants to acknowledge is that it costs next to nothing to provide a child with a quality basic education—reading, writing, and 'rithmetic. (I think I paid $150 for a curriculum to teach my boys to read, but I could have easily done it with library books.) It's once you begin adding in the extras—like social services, ESL tutors, drug testing, tablets for every student, and an army of bureaucrats—that costs begin to skyrocket. (And don't get me started on kindergarten teachers being required to get Master's degrees in order to teach five-year-olds to read. This ain't rocket science, folks.)

Ultimately, if we want to improve the quality of education we need to advocate for less rather than more. Spend less, provide fewer amenities, return to teaching the basics and the quality of education will improve. Continuing to pour money into top-down, dysfunctional education monopolies will continue to result in poor outcomes. Removing the role of the federal government from education would be a good place to begin—that should be a no-brainer. The feds have been calling the shots since the 1970s and by every measurable data point the experiment has been an utter failure.

I hope LeBron's school succeeds. If nothing else, the school's extensive wraparound services will fill the gaps where parents are neglecting their responsibilities. And perhaps a parade of motivational speakers led by LeBron can encourage kids to work hard and climb out of poverty. But let's not fool ourselves: the public schools cannot be—and were never meant to be— an adequate substitute for a child's parents —  and the moral character of our country cannot be fixed by writing a check.