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Lack of funding isn't the real problem with public schools

By Trevor Bothwell
web posted September 13, 2004

Some Maryland parents were greeted with an unpleasant surprise upon their children's return to school this fall. In addition to subsidizing free lunches and student medications, parents with high schoolers in Calvert County Public Schools learned that their kids now will be charged a fee to participate on a sports team.

Nor is this practice new or specific to Maryland. According to the Christian Science Monitor, thousands of students from around the country are being charged in order to take part in extra-curricular activities ranging from singing in the glee club to being a member of the National Honor Society.

Patuxent High School in Calvert County, Maryland, maintains a website claiming that "budget cuts and fiscal deficiencies" are the primary reasons students will have to pay a one-time fee of $75 for playing team sports this year. Evidently, county officials originally wanted to charge these athletes $75 per sport, threatening to drop athletic programs altogether if they wouldn't pony up. Ah, to compromise with the czars!

Unfortunately, it always seems to be the students who suffer at the hands of incompetent school officials. District administrators blame the need for these "pay to play" programs on shrinking budgets, or on new educational requirements handed down by the state. But in this era of entitlement, it's laughable that public school budgets financed by taxpayers are in any way lacking.

Maryland's per pupil expenditure has been rising steadily over the years, and the state currently spends on average about $9,000 per year on every student in its public schools. And this doesn't even take into account state and federal grants. It seems the only thing lacking these days is the intelligence of public school bureaucrats.

Unlike many private schools, whose expenses are paid by private tuition and donations, if public schools were truly strapped for cash, charging students to participate in extra-curricular activities would make sense. After all, it's better than blithely raising taxes, right? Not so fast.

For years we've been throwing more and more money at our public schools nationwide while student academic performance has remained virtually unchanged. For only one average Maryland classroom, the state compels taxpayers to foot about $225,000! ($9,000 x 25 students = $225,000) If we deduct $50,000 to pay for the teacher, even given the cost of health insurance benefits, the state still comes away with well over $150,000 to spend elsewhere. Where's all this money going?

A simple glance at the Calvert County Public Schools 2004 public school budget yields any number of annual programs or entitlements that could be cut in the name of athletics, but this is assuming district educrats are more concerned about their students than themselves.

Calvert County allocates over $27,000 for "mileage reimbursement" for its administrators. Considering the county superintendent, deputy superintendent, and a handful of district directors and supervisors receive over half of this reimbursement, not to mention make almost or more than $100,000 a year, the county might be able to afford to cut this cost. After all, how many teachers making one-third the salary of these administrators are paid to drive to work?

But this is small potatoes. How about the state's "Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act"? I know, I know. It's for the benefit of "the children." But this little "act" costs Maryland taxpayers almost $2.2 million per year for Calvert County schools alone. And part of the show includes about $450,000 in subsidies for "class size reduction." This might not seem too bad until you realize this little ruse adds only six new teachers -- six -- to a district that contains 22 schools.

Willingness to discipline students and remove from class the ones who refuse to behave is worth a helluva lot more than what this district is wasting on a fad. How many students do college lecture halls hold? 300? 400? Where's the outcry for reducing class sizes here? Apparently, effecting academic improvement takes a backseat to basking in self-righteousness.

My favorite though is the "materials of instruction" costs, to the tune of almost a million bucks a year. (How much does chalk cost?) This doesn't include textbooks and library books, by the way, but likely all those trendy instructional programs that inject politically correct ideology, self-esteem building, and psychobabble into classroom instruction.

Calvert County's current predicament demonstrates the inefficiency of a centrally managed education system, where a handful of bureaucrats decides how best to allocate resources to each school within its district. Moreover, this situation reveals what eventually happens when schools aren't compelled to ensure the effectiveness of programs they employ, since funding continues to roll in every year regardless of how it's spent. Competition with other schools -- public or private -- would shed light on how funds are most efficiently spent -- and most easily squandered.

One would think that a county superintendent making $135,000 a year would be able to figure out a way to relieve his students of the burden of arbitrarily paying $75 to participate on athletic teams in a well-funded school district -- especially if he joined minds with his deputy who's hauling in $121,000.

But this isn't the purpose of today's public schools. It's to continually implore government to subsidize programs virtually unaccountable to taxpayers -- and then turn around and use parents' well-deserved outcries against ridiculous scams to elicit ever more taxpayer revenue to combat "budget cuts and fiscal deficiencies" the following year.

Trevor Bothwell is editor of The Right Report. He is a resident of Calvert County, Maryland, and a former elementary school teacher. Emphasis placed on "former." He can be contacted at bothwell@therightreport.com.

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