Saturday, November 10, 2007

Carlos Guerra: Spend money on what we know really works for schools, students

Carlos Guerra | Express-News

Writing about Texas' high dropout rates — and about how inadequate school funding contributes to Texas' big share of this national crisis — always packs my mailbox with messages that echo familiar themes.

And so it was Thursday after a column about a national dropout study conducted by Johns Hopkins University researchers.

Those without a high school diploma will be doomed to a life of poverty because they are likely to be stuck in low-wage jobs with few if any benefits, the researchers pointed out.

That makes sense. As our economy is turned from one based on manufacturing to one based on knowledge and technology, educational attainment and earnings are becoming more closely correlated.

Researchers found that nationally, 40 percent of ninth- or 10th-graders were not enrolled during their senior year in one-fifth of the nation's high schools.

There were such schools in various parts of virtually all states, but these "dropout factories" were most concentrated in the cores of large cities.

And just 15 states — Texas among them — account for 80 percent of these schools, where "graduation is not the norm." There are 182 such high schools in Texas, and 15 of them are in San Antonio.

Generally, they also tend to have high enrollments of poor and minority students.

But the researchers also found other schools with similarly high concentrations that were exceptions. They attributed this to their having adequate resources that were being judiciously expended, highly motivated teachers and cultures of high expectations.

For years, demographers have warned that Texas is headed for a steep economic decline because Latinos and blacks are rapidly outpacing Anglos in population growth. If we do not dramatically improve minorities' graduation rates, they warn, it will result in a major decline in earnings, the ripples of which will be felt by the business sector and government, both of whose revenues will plunge.

Such improvements won't happen, I have pointed out, unless we invest more money on our public education system.

"You don't solve problems by throwing money at them," many readers responded. Several also mentioned "Taj Mahal administrative office buildings" and high-dollar junkets taken by educators and school board members to meetings in exotic locales. Others also wrote about the wastefulness of having so many school districts, since each has its own high-dollar administrative structure.

Still others recalled various scandals involving district officials and administrators.

Fair enough. Education money has been wasted in the past, and school districts have not been immune to corruption or from empire builders.

But let's keep things in perspective and remember that we know that some things do work.

Good teachers are critical, but they are also in high demand.

We also know that smaller classes and schools are also better than larger ones, especially for students who aren't English-proficient, or are poor or have other special needs.

Money must be spent judiciously. But all those things that do work will require more money. It's that simple.

The U.S. Census Bureau's latest "Public School Finances" details educational spending in 2005. Of the $427.2 billion spent nationally, 60.5 percent was spent on instruction and only 7.4 percent was spent on administration. The rest went for support services, such as operations and maintenance, pupil transportation, and instructional staff support.

Only 9.1 percent of the revenue was federal money, while 47 percent was from state governments and 43.9 was local.

But there was a huge disparity in how much states spent per pupil. Utah spent only $5,257 while New York spent $14,119. Nationally, the average was $8,701, but Texas spent $7,267.

Only 12 states spent less.

Are we getting what we are paying for, or paying for something we aren't getting?

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