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A Curmudgeonly Perspective on Bond Elections and School Funding November 6, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Education, Politics.
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Tonight, the election returns were coming in, and as usual, virtually all propositions were approved by voters.  The one that was the most interesting to me, though, was one that I did not have the opportunity to vote on – a $559 million bond election for the Leander ISD.  I watched a live, five minute segment on this particular bond on one of the local news channels.  During the segment, the reporter was at the site of the group that was supporting this bond.  When a sufficiently large enough number of precincts were reporting to guarantee that the bond would be approved, the segment showed the group popping a bottle of champaign and toasting their success.

I personally don’t have a stake in this bond either way – it’s a local issue for the Leander ISD.  However, I think it is so interesting to see such exuberance over this bond.  In essence, the people voted to spend $559 million of their own money on the construction of new buildings to support the rapid growth of the school district.  This is on top of property tax rates among the highest in the nation and in a school district that is already spending $8310 per student annually (2007-08 budget divided by 2007-08 enrollment).

Certainly, there are many that feel that more money for schools and teachers is the solution to the problem, and for these, this bond election is probably welcome news.  However, it’s interestiing to think about what it means to be spending $8310 per student when you’ve already got your existing facilities available and you’re averaging over 18 students per teacher (source: Leander ISD, total enrollment divided by total number of teachers).  These numbers mean that each class costs $8310 x 18 = approximately $150,000 annually.

Suppose you were given 18 students and one year to educate them – how would you do it?  Given that the average teacher in the Leander ISD has around 8 years of experience and no advanced degree, the typical salary you’d expect to pay the teacher is just over $43,000.  (See the Leander ISD Teacher salary scale.)  So after spending just $43,000 of your $150,000, you already have a teacher and facilities available.  What would you do with the other $107,000?  Is it at all possible to purchase educational materials for 18 students for $107,000.

 I say (surprisingly) yes.  For example, let’s say that you bought every student a new textbook for every subject – we’ll call it $400 per student (8 subjects x $50/textbook).  Let’s say you also bought all of the students school supplies for them – pencils, notebooks, paper, and all of the other things students typically buy for themselves at the beginning of the year.  We’ll call that $100/student. 

This gives us a pretty low-tech classroom, so let’s also spring for a personal laptop for every child.  Dell sells a very nice laptop (the Vostro 1000 XP) that includes a very large (15.4″) LCD screen, office/educational software, wireless internet, and more for $541, including all shipping and tax.

All these expenditures combined come to $1041/student, or roughly $19000.  Buying books, all school supplies, and even personal laptops for every student in the class leaves us around $88,000 for the year.

I’m running out of ideas of where to spend the leftover money, but two good places might be to increase the teachers’ salaries and to decrease the class size.  So let’s say instead of one teacher for 18 students, we hire 2 teachers who have 9 students per class and let’s bump the teachers’ salaries to $64,500 – a raise of a full 50%. 

So, to summarize, with the same budget currently being spent in Leander, we have done the following:

  • Purchased all books and school supplies for all students
  • Purchased every student his or her own personal laptop computer, software, and internet access
  • Given every teacher a 50% raise, so that teachers even without advanced degrees are making over $64,000 per year.
  • Decreased the class size by 50% for all classes – so that we only have 9 students per teacher, district-wide.

Now, all of that was done with money BEFORE the tonight’s $559 million bond election.  Is the extra bond money really necessary?  It would seem prudent to try to figure out why the money the district already has is not being spent in a way that benefits the students as greatly as the proposal above.

Another way to look at it is as follows:  Many would argue that a “private school” education is preferable to public school.  Whether this has merit, I do not know, but I can say that  given the same $8310/student in the scenario above, one could simply play a game of educational arbitrage by using those funds to pay the private school tuition for each of those 18 students.  Leander ISD could, for example, send those 18 students to a local private school, such as the Summit Christian Academy, where annual tuition averages around $5400.  Leander ISD would have that many fewer students to educate and would still pocket $2910 per student or over $52000 per classroom.

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