It’s often said that Rhode Island doesn’t get good value for its education dollar. The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council says so every year, and the claim is dutifully repeated on the radio and I’ve heard it at the State House, too.
But is it true?
A while back I was looking at education funding and comparisons between states, and I noticed how thoroughly
Rhode Island is outperformed by . Massachusetts Massachusetts, of course, is less urban than our little
state, but even when you leave out Cape Cod and the Berkshires, or only look at
urban areas, or high-poverty schools, students in schools tend to score higher
on the national NAEP tests of academic prowess. (Check ) Massachusetts
As far as costs,
So what’s with that? Our higher costs can’t be attributed to unions, since
is as unionized as we are, and besides they pay their teachers more, according
to the NEA salary survey. So I looked in the results and found… well I found that
it’s pretty hard to compare the numbers, since they’re all reported in
different categories. Massachusetts
I couldn’t help notice that the
numbers do not include things
like debt service, construction costs, and transportation for non-public
students, maybe a quarter or a fifth of the differences in costs. Massachusetts
Fidgeting around with the numbers for a while, you quickly come to a couple of conclusions. First, the differences are more or less along the lines that Massachusetts has fewer teachers per student, but they get more in the way of support services than here, and they appear to spend quite a bit less on administration.
Benefit costs might also have something to do with it, but it’s hard to say. Second, it will take an army of accountants to sort the differences out more precisely than that because the categories just do not line up in a way that makes it easy to compare our state with theirs.
The real reason I was even bothering with this is something else entirely. The Kids Count data book came out in April, and I’ve been meaning to write about it since.
Let me say before I go on that I will likely be the last writer in America frantically waving the flag of liberal education as the grim waves of business needs wash over my vessel and draw me down to the darkling deep. To me, there is an inestimable value to teaching our children to appreciate the glories of human civilization. After all, that’s how we pass it on, isn’t it?
But stick with me for a moment, and let’s pretend to look at our schools as little factories to manufacture workers while we consider the, ah, raw materials — and how we care for them. And here’s the funny thing. On pretty much every variable of childhood health and well-being,
children have a better time of
it than ours do. Massachusetts
Lack of health insurance coverage? 3% vs. 6%. Children in poverty? 14% vs. 19%. Infant mortality? 5.1% vs. 5.9%. Immunized two-year-olds? 80.4% vs. 76.7%
This is not just a story about our poverty rate or unemployment rate being higher than theirs. Eligible kids who get food stamps? 68% vs. 75%. Children under the poverty line without health insurance? 6% vs. 11%.
Overall, Kids Count calls
the third healthiest state to be a kid in, and lags at 17th. Is it conceivable
that this has no bearing on the collective school performance of our children? Rhode Island
Of course, what has our actual record been? Over the last few years, we’ve tightened eligibility rules and raised co-pays for Medicaid, reduced rental subsidies, ended or severely curtailed child care for poor families, and more.
We prioritize the health of rich taxpayers over the health of poor children, and then complain when the poor children don’t do well on standardized tests. Go figure.
I’m not counseling only doom and gloom here. In fact, our standing in the Kids Count comparisons has made some desultory progress in the last couple of years. Despite the funding setbacks, some measures are still improving over where we were a couple of decades ago, just much more slowly and unevenly than we could.
When we’re talking about relative performance of one educational system to another, it’s worth considering the factors outside of the classroom. Spending a bit more time worrying about the health of our children might be as productive as complaining about the cost of our schools.