Education Letter to the Editor

District Spending Flaws and Enrollment Losses

September 25, 2006 1 min read

To the Editor:

As I read it, the essential point that Marguerite Roza makes in her Commentary (“Must Enrollment Declines Spell Financial Chaos for Districts?,” Aug. 30, 2006) is that school districts spend first and worry about whether they have enough money later. Her essay could have been written at any time since World War II.

This approach to spending stems in large part from the logic (largely unfounded) that more money means better education. Given a district’s prior contractual commitments, made without regard to whether there were in fact funds enough to pay for them, most new dollars a district may receive are used to fulfill previous salary commitments, and therefore go to fewer teachers and administrators. The natural result is less service, or, at best, continuation of services that may have been inadequate in the first place.

This logic also gives rise to complaints that charter or other alternative public schools take students and revenues from regular public schools. Purposely—and I think deceptively—overlooked is the fact that the district no longer has any expenses for such students.

In states where alternative schools get less than the full per-capita aid, traditional districts actually end up with more dollars per student—but the complaints continue.

My experience with charter schools over the past 15 years shows that wise superintendents and chief financial officers in traditional districts fully understand that their districts will come out ahead if a student goes to a charter or other alternative public school. Much of the complaining is therefore for the record, and is not in fact correct.

It is absurd, of course, for any public school board member or superintendent to argue that expenditures are not affected by student enrollment. But, whatever the impact, they would do well to ponder the fact that the phenomenon may well be the result of their own policy choices.

John A. Cairns

Minneapolis, Minn.

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2006 edition of Education Week as District Spending Flaws And Enrollment Losses