This struck us as being perhaps a bit less than fully honest: How much money gets spent per pupil on low-income students?
On Sunday’s massacre of the mind, Linda Darling-Hammond raised the issue, with moderator Melissa Harris-Perry staring unhelpfully on. This is how it started:
DARLING-HAMMOND (4/7/13): Just to reinforce that, we spend three times as much in the high-spending schools in most states as we do in the lowest spending schools. We spend more on the education of affluent kids than poor kids in most states.In context, it wasn’t completely clear what Darling-Hammond was “reinforcing.” But from that statement, might a person get the idea that we spend perhaps three times as much per pupil on affluent kids?
Darling-Hammond didn’t explicitly say that. But that may be how Steve Perry, the Rhee substitute, understood her statement. Here is the fuller exchange on this subject, an exchange which ends when Harris-Perry loses her focus again:
DARLING-HAMMOND: Just to reinforce, we spend three times as much in the high-spending schools in most states as we do in the lowest spending schools. We spend more on the education of affluent kids than poor kids in most states.Rather than trying to settle this point, Harris-Perry wandered off in another direction, as she did all day. But there you see a striking exchange, in which Darling-Hammond and Perry seem to have a large disagreement about per pupil spending.
PERRY: That’s not true. That’s not true at all. That’s not true at all. In Newark, New Jersey, they spend $24,000 per pupil, and there’s no other city in the state that spends that much. In fact, if you look at many states–
DARLING-HAMMOND: Actually, that’s not true. New Jersey has districts that spend as high as $35,000.
PERRY: You can look at many of the school districts, and one of the things you’ll find is that the reason why the children are not performing is not because they are poor, it is because they are in a poorly run school and in poorly run classrooms.
HARRIS-PERRY: Let me suggest there is invisible spending. Let me just suggest this. If you are in wealthy school districts, parents are also paying for tutors after school, enrichment activities after school and very expensive summer camps...
Thanks to Harris-Perry’s wandering, this dispute was never clarified or resolved. Who was more nearly correct in this unfinished exchange?
Introducing the topic, Darling-Hammond said we spend more per pupil on affluent students in most states. She talked about spending three times as much in the highest-spending districts, although she didn’t specifically identify these as the affluent districts.
Perry said her claim was “not true at all.” He said the city of Newark spends $24,000 per pupil; he said no other “city” in New Jersey spends that much. Rejecting this claim, Darling-Hammond said that some “districts” in New Jersey spend $35,000 per pupil.
In fact, it’s surprisingly hard to establish a figure for per pupil spending. In part, it depends on what categories of spending get included in the formula. Other factors may be involved when we judge the fairness of per pupil spending. Urban districts will often have expenses which don't exist elsewhere.
That said, everyone agrees that, on a simple-minded basis, Newark is one of the highest spending districts in New Jersey, or even perhaps in the nation. Perry’s $24,000 figure comes from a new assessment ordered by Governor Christie—an assessment which included types of spending which had previously been excluded from such measures.
That said, by almost any straightforward measure, Newark is a high-spending district. (So is Washington, D.C.) No one really disputes this fact, although you may have gotten a different impression from what Darling-Hammond said. By the way, are there really districts in New Jersey which spend as much as $35,000 per pupil? In a news report in the Newark Star-Ledger, we stumbled upon this description:
CALEFATI AND RUNDQUIST (2/8/11): Overall, Avalon—a tiny district in Cape May County that consists of one school and 75 students—spent $35,882 per pupil in 2009-10, the highest in the state and more than twice the state average.Operating one lonely school for just 75 students, Avalon got itself stuck with that per pupil bill. And this was done under the old spending formula, according to which average spending in the state was just $13,800 per year!
David Rauenzahn, chief school administrator in Avalon and neighboring Stone Harbor, which also has one school, said a declining enrollment is driving up per-pupil costs. The two districts already share many services, including his salary, in an effort to reduce costs.
The general question of per pupil spending is quite complex. Had Harris-Perry so chosen, she could have built an interesting segment around that topic—although she would have needed panelists who were well informed on the subject. (Darling-Hammond may be such a person, if she's suitably questioned.)
That said, we were struck by the load of spin which seemed to surround Darling-Hammond’s claim. To our ear, a viewer may have gotten a false impression from the things this professor said. For what it’s worth, here are the same Star-Ledger journalists, reporting Newark's per pupil spending for the 2009-2010 year under terms of the state’s new formula.
According to the Star-Ledger’s confusing report, average per pupil spending in New Jersey now stood at “$17,469 for the 2010-11 school year, the most recent data available.” The new figure for Newark itself wasn’t included in this report. But under terms of the new formula, the city’s spending in 2009-2010 was now being reported as $23,057, the Star-Ledger said.
This doesn't resolve every factual question. It doesn't resolve every question of fairness. But if you came away with the impression that Newark is being hugely outspent by the rest of the state, these figures may help you see why Perry reacted as he did.
In fairness, Perry may have worked a heavier con at another point in the program. At that time, he slimed North Babylon High, apparently inaccurately, as a way of pimping the world-class greatness of the charter school in Hartford which he himself brilliantly leads.
There are a million cons in the Naked City. Or on a very poorly run cable “news” pseudo-program.