One of the most common criticisms of our local schools, particularly MCS, is that they waste too much money…or in terms of politics speak, they spend too much.
There are basically two ways to cut down on spending: lower your projected expenditures on the front end, or lower them on the back end based on reserves and revenues. Its probably a mischaracterization to say that the schools have chosen the latter, though that’s definitely the perception, and conventional wisdom that prevails.
Unfortunately for the cause of honest debate, just what the right amount of “spending” actually is never really comes into the conversation. One naturally assumes that it means the balance of meeting the mission with as little waste as possible. Of course, everyone wants that. But the argument assumes that this isn’t happening now.
With that in mind, I’m going to tackle two of the more popular fallacies spread by the “spending too much” crowd.
The “Bloated Bureaucracy” Argument
One of the most common and widely accepted arguments about school funding is that it is rife with waste. Charges of patronage jobs, and administrators whose jobs are either duplicated elsewhere, or who do nothing have littered the debate over school funding and efficiency for longer than anyone can remember.
The typical counter to this charge is that these jobs are necessary to conduct business.
One thing neither side of this debate does is come forward with numbers, other than the number of employees, to support their claims.
The “bloated administration” side has an easy lift. Americans hate the idea of bureaucracy. MCS has done itself no favors with some of its practices. But ultimately, the charges and counter-claims are left unsupported, leaving the listener to make an uninformed decision based on their personal perspective. Combine that with the constant beating of the drum of bloat, and over time, people come to accept the argument because the school system has never really presented a solid or coherent argument against it.
But is it true? To find out, we have to look at like agencies. How about other school districts across the state.
The challenge here is grouping like things accordingly. Because of the way some districts report expenses, not all expense categories or sub-categories match exactly, but by and large this estimate is within .1% between districts.
The key thing here is that across Tennessee, the state’s largest districts spend about the same percentage of total expenditures on Administration functions, between four and five percent.
So if MCS, as it stands now, is bloated, then so are all the other districts in Tennessee, including SCS, which is often heralded as the model for efficient administration, and has the second highest percentage of all the urban districts.
In short, the allegation that MCS is somehow any more wasteful on administrative functions is false.
$10,000 per child fallacy
Over the weekend, County Commissioner Wyatt Bunker repeated an oft heard claim that MCS spends upwards of $10,000 per student.
Here’s the exact quote:
“Shelby County Schools between $7,000 and $8,000 per student was able to produce more teachers, more teacher assistance, more librarians in their schools than Memphis City Schools was with about $10,000 per pupil,” says Bunker.
This is what one would call “creative math”.
Look back at the spreadsheet above. You’ll note I helpfully provided the per child spending for each district.
Not only does MCS not spend $10,000 per child, they don’t spend as much as other districts around the state. MCS comes in third in terms of per child spending, behind Hamilton Co. Schools and Metro Nashville schools.
So where does Bunker get this $10,000 number from?
To get to $10,000 per child, you have to include all the funds from the General Fund, and all Special Revenue Funds, which include services for kids who are severely economically disadvantaged, or have some kind of special need.
Of the $250m that flows into MCS for these special, need based projects, only $2,000 comes from Shelby Co. government.
But wait, there’s more.
SCS gets this money too. In fact, their per child spending bumps up to over $9000 per child if you include it.
MCS gets more as a percentage of its total budget because it has a far higher percentage of children who are economically disadvantaged or have other special needs.
But to characterize the “General Fund” expenditure for SCS and the “All Revenue” expenditure for MCS as somehow equivalent is not only incorrect, its outright dishonest.
I should note, Commissioner Bunker isn’t the only one to spread this fallacy. He’s just the most recent one to get caught on camera spreading it. There are plenty of other local politicians who have used this creativity for various purposes.
Both of our examples put in perspective the reality of school spending.
First, our local school districts don’t spend more on administration than other large school districts across the state.
Second, our spending per pupil isn’t outside the norm for these same districts.
All that said, it doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for added efficiency. I don’t work for any school district, so I’m not qualified to make a determination.
In fact, no one on the County Commission works for a school district, with the exception of Melvin Burgess, who is well placed to know just how lean the district is running.
Perhaps rather than trying to foist a trumped up “conflict of interest” cloud on him, as Commissioner Terry Roland charged, they could ask him about efficiency measures the district has taken.
I know, that doesn’t play well in the media.
In the end, rather than political gamesmanship we need an honest debate about the budget for the schools. That has been completely absent from this debate to date.
Hopefully, that will change soon. One can hope, right?