Politics and the Inconvenient Facts

Michael Shires
Associate Professor of Public Policy, Pepperdine University

Last week, my colleagues and I released our latest analysis
of school expenditures in California (click
here for the study
), detailing the spending patterns in school districts
across the state.  As is often the case
when a piece of research strikes at the heart of a group’s political
agenda,  Peter Schrag’s column in the California
Progress Report
this week attacking that study is a classic example of
politics trying to divert attention from the inconvenient facts. 

When Peter contacted me last week, I spent the better part
of an hour explaining to him our methodology and the reasons why it was the
best approach to accurately reflect and describe the changes in school
expenditures in California.  While it is
clear he disagreed with our analysis, his response was not to engage in an open
debate over the major issues at the heart of our study, but rather to
regurgitate a politically-driven analysis of the study prepared by consultants paid
to spin the results to fit the agenda of the education establishment.

Political his column is, but why?   Our study publishes the facts.  Simple but important facts about one of the
most important areas of our public investment.  Never once in the entire study, do we argue
whether school spending is too high or too low-read it and you will see that.  It is our critics’ interpretation that says
school funding is sufficient, not the study’s. 
Many others have read the report and interpreted some of the trends in
school spending documented there as a clear signal that we are not spending
enough.   The advocates’ concern seems to
be much more rooted in the fear that people will be able to access these facts
and draw their own conclusions-dangerous in an era of scarcity.

Mr. Schrag proposes two substantive criticisms of our study
embedded in a fondue of innuendo and disingenuity:  (1) that our definition of in-classroom
expenditures is wrong, and (2) that including a time series starting in 2003-04
was intentionally deceptive.  Our
response to each is straightforward.

The Definition of
Expenditures in the Classroom. 
By
Mr. Schrag’s definition, and that of his education machine allies, every expense in education is essential
and necessary to the classroom.  Again,
we take no position on that-if you really believe that all expenditures are
necessary to the classroom, simply use the total spending values on page 11 as
your in-the-classroom number.  We chose
only to include those items that are directly and completely in the classroom,
much as most businessmen do not count the cost of the accounting department as
part of the cost of the production process, but rather as part of the company’s
overhead.   Our definition is simple-what
dollars actually went into that room with doors on it and kids in it.

The Years Included in
the Study. 
The complaint about the beginning
year of our study is particularly misleading. 
We published the data from ALL years for which the data were
available-there was no magic or manipulation. 
If the Department of Education wants to make the data available and Mr.
Schrag or one of his education establishment friends wants to fund the study,
we are happy to take it back as far as it will go. 

But their critique goes further, arguing that starting the
comparisons in 2003-04 is problematic because of business cycles and their
attendant funding swings.  If one instead
uses 2005-06 as the starting point-a year in which schools received the full
funding to which they were entitled under the state’s funding formulas-the
results are even more striking.  Per
capita personal income, our measure of the state’s overall wealth and ability
to pay, increases by 1.8 percent through 2008-09 while total school expenditures
grow by 10.8 percent and per pupil expenditures grow by 11.6 percent.  These trends are consistent and pervasive
throughout our data, no matter what base year is used.  The beauty of our report is that, with our
data and analysis, anyone-including parents, taxpayers, citizens and the media-can
make these comparisons.

Can the Facts Win
Out?
  As the father of two children
in our state’s public schools, I know firsthand the reality of the past several
years in our schools.  The challenges these
years have brought have directly affected the lives of teachers,
administrators, staff, parents and children in every school and every district.  And while my personal feelings about whether
school spending is high enough or whether that money is efficiently spent will
remain just that, I do know that those feelings do not change the facts we
published.

Which is precisely why we undertook this study:  to present as cleanly as possible, a clear
and complete representation of the data without all of the political spin that
advocates would like to attach.  It is
unfortunate that when one deals with scholarly research in areas with high
political stakes that the conversation gets so easily diverted from the
important insights that can be gleaned from the actual data.   We
continue to offer our report as an important source of the facts-even the
inconvenient ones-that can and should inform our state’s decisions about the
future of education in California.

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