The Myth of Per-Student Cost - Granite Grok

The Myth of Per-Student Cost

‘Money should be attached to students instead of to institutions’ is a new catch phrase that I’ve been hearing and reading a lot lately.  It seems to be replacing ‘money should follow the students’, which apparently failed to get the traction that it was supposed to.

The problem with both of these is that they are based on a faulty assumption, which is that the average cost per student spent by a district is a meaningful figure.  But it’s not.

If a district has 100 students, and spends $1,800,000 per year to run its schools, the per-student cost is $18,000.

But let’s say enrollment increases to 106 students.  Then the per-student cost drops to about $17,000.  Is this cause for celebration?  Or suppose it drops to 95 students.  Then the per-student cost jumps to about $19,000.  Is this cause for alarm?  No, because the cost of running the school doesn’t change.

The district runs the schools, and the students use the schools provided by the district.  If a few more kids show up, or a few kids leave (to homeschool, or attend a charter school, or attend a private school), the per-student cost fluctuates, but it doesn’t change the amount that taxpayers are on the hook for.

All of which is to say, if we’re talking about a small percentage of the total number of students, there is no instead of.  There is only in addition to.  Running a school  and giving money to some of the students who would normally use that school is more expensive, not less.

So when the Department of Education says something like ‘If a kid leaves a public school that spends $18,000 on him to attend a charter school that spends $8000 on him, that’s a savings of $10,000’, this indicates either an inadvertent misunderstanding of the situation, or a  deliberate attempt to mislead.

Similarly when some legislators say something like ‘We can fund an account using some of the money that a district spends on a student, so the student can decide how to use it’.

Now, if we were to talk about ‘extra money attached to students, in addition to money already attached to institutions’, that would create an accurate picture of the situation.  But it’s not nearly as catchy, is it?  And it might get people to start thinking — instead of feeling — about how school funding actually works.

That wouldn’t be any better for school choice proponents than it would be for the education establishment.  Both sides of that debate rely equally on misleading rhetoric to appeal to people’s emotions.

But one of the things people might start thinking about is why we should be spending tax money — whether attached to students or institutions — on students whose parents can already afford to educate them.  And thinking about that would be good for taxpayers.  And, in the long run, for students as well.