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School Spending Predicted To Climb 50% by 2005

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Debate over whether more money fosters better education moved into the 21st century last week with new projections that education spending will climb nearly 50 percent by 2005.

The cost of public elementary and secondary education will grow by nearly $125 billion over the next 11 years, from nearly $262 billion in 1994 to $386 billion in 2005, according to the projections. The national average per-pupil expenditure will jump from $6,034 to $7,942 over that period.

The findings are part of a report by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a policy group based in Washington that promotes limited government and expansion of free markets.

The projections do not square with federal estimates, and school-finance experts have questioned their methodology. But the report undoubtedly will provide grist for the ongoing debate over the effect of increased spending on students' learning.

Most recently, that debate centered on the work of researchers at the University of Chicago. In March, they released findings questioning previous, widely cited research that found no link between higher spending and improved student performance. (See Education Week, March 23, 1994.)

'Stop Throwing Money'

But at a press conference to release their report, ALEC officials warned that the new spending they predicted would do little to help children learn.

"We must stop throwing money at the problem," said Samuel A. Brunelli, the executive director of ALEC, who served in the U.S. Education Department during the Reagan Administration. "We've been trying to spend our way out of mediocrity for 20 years, and it has not worked."

Harold J. Brubaker, the national chairman of ALEC and a North Carolina state representative, argued that the report signaled an urgent need for other options, such as charter schools, privatization, and competition among schools.

"Public education, created to serve all the people, has become a self-perpetuating monopoly whose top priority is to serve itself," he said.

According to the ALEC report, taxes paid nationwide to support education will go up by one-third, from the current $1,006 per capita to $1,341 per capita in 2005.

State-by-state comparisons of spending and academic performance included in the report demonstrated no correlation between spending and academic performance, the ALEC officials argued.

Of the 10 states whose students' test scores and graduation rates ranked highest in the country, none ranked higher than 14th in per-pupil expenditures.

The Skeptics' Reply

The report's projections and comparisons were viewed skeptically by school-finance experts.

A year ago, the Education Department projected a less dramatic increase in spending over the 13-year period ending in 2004.

The ALEC report estimates a 7.6 percent increase between 1994 and 2005. Federal education researchers, by comparison, calculated that expenditures would increase between 29.1 percent and 43.8 percent by 2004.

Wendel Cox, the director of state legislation and policy for ALEC, said that federal figures were lower because they project lower teacher salaries.

"They assume a restraint on the part of the N.E.A. and the other teacher unions that is just not historically proven," he said.

But several school-finance researchers said that ALEC's methodology would not win an economist's Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

Accurate projections have to include studies of future economic conditions and labor markets, according to Chrys Dougherty, a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

For its projections, ALEC used enrollment projections from the U.S. Census Bureau and extrapolated costs based on spending trends for the last 24 years.

"In my opinion, extrapolation of anything economic is worthless," said Mr. Dougherty, who has conducted studies of Texas school costs for state officials.

James Wyckoff, a professor at the State University of New York at Albany, also said that any projections of future spending should note that spending on special-education programs is unlikely to increase as rapidly as in recent years.

Mr. Wyckoff, who has researched nine years of school spending in New York, said that special education absorbed much of the new school spending in that state in the early 1990's.

The ALEC report's state-by-state comparisons yield few hard conclusions, according to Mr. Dougherty, because they do not take into account the difference among states in poverty, single-parent families, and other factors that drive up spending.

"You have to look at what schools are doing with comparable populations," he said.

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