Scott Sumner  

Inequality in education

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Because I'm a resident of Newton, Massachusetts, I couldn't help noticing that it was recently named the Best Suburb in America for education. And it's easy to see why:

That's largely because this wealthy Boston suburb has the money to fund some really excellent schools. In fact, out of all of the places we looked at Newton spent the third most on each student: $17,343.
It's a sad comment on our country that money is lavished on schools in wealthy suburbs like Newton, while schools that are dominated by black and hispanic students (such as nearby Boston) are starved for funds. Here's Boston's public school demographics:

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Unfortunately I was unable to find per pupil spending in 2014 for Boston, but I did find a web site with per pupil spending in 2013 for all the towns in Massachusetts. Just look at the savage inequalities in our system:

Per pupil spending in 2013:

Newton: $16,400

Boston: $17,283

PS. My daughter attends one of the most expensive high schools ever built, costing over $200 million. The locals call it the "Taj Mahal."

June 26 (Bloomberg) -- A $200 million high school scheduled to open in 2010 in the Boston suburb of Newton, Massachusetts, will be the state's most expensive. It may also be the last of its kind.

The 413,000-square-foot (33,368 square-meter) Newton North High, featuring an arts complex and an athletic wing with swimming pool and climbing wall, has become a symbol of excess in Massachusetts, where households bear the country's eighth-highest property-tax burden, according to the Washington-based Tax Foundation.

The project's estimated cost of $478 a square foot has doubled since Newton Mayor David Cohen proposed it in 2003. The price jump sparked a taxpayer revolt that kept him from seeking a fourth term next year. Massachusetts Treasurer Timothy Cahill, who called the building the ``Taj Mahal,'' wants to limit the price for future state-subsidized schools, including one proposed by the neighboring town of Wellesley, to $100 million.


But even we can't compete with Boston.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Mike W writes:

...schools that are dominated by black and hispanic students (such as nearby Boston) are starved for funds.

Per pupil spending in 2013:

Newton: $16,400

Boston: $17,283

But even we can't compete with Boston.

I afraid I don't get the point...Boston is "starved for funds" but spends more per student than does Newton? And how does the cost of the "Taj Mahal" work into the comparison?

According to the detail of costs, Boston spends 13.5% more per-student than Newton. But half of that difference in dollars is in the category "Pupil Services". Is that security services?

In my experience with my granddaughters' schools and as a charter school board member, not having to pay *classroom management* costs makes a big difference in the costs that can be applied to instruction and thereby the quality of the education.

Comparisons of gross numbers just aren't helpful.

NZ writes:

@Mike W:

Gross numbers still do tell us a lot.

Typical one-room schoolhouses in the 19th century seem to have turned out much better results than even many of the best schools today. Even if we only looked at costs-per-student that were strictly applied to instruction and adjusted for inflation, it would still be way less than that same number for most inner-city schools now.

John Voorheis writes:

Looking here: http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/state_report/ppx.aspx (available only through 2011-2012), we can contextualize this in the whole state. Newton and Boston are both in the top quartile of per-pupil spending. At least some of the Newton-Boston spending gap may be due to federal funds - Grants fund up ~15% of Boston's expenditures, ~10% of Newton's.

Using this data, educational inequality is much less than income inequality - the Gini of educational expenditures in 0.09 (R code to do that here: http://rpubs.com/jvoorheis/29268)

Note that inequality in education has decreased since 2005 by the Gini, but not by Lorenz dominance.

An igyt writes:

Sarcasm on the internet is nearly impossible to pull off. It's hard to distinguish from a typo even for those who know the author. And for others, it's easy just to figure you have surfed into an idiot again.

Scott Sumner writes:

Mike, I was being sarcastic. I don't actually believe that poor educational results are caused by a lack of spending.

John, Thanks for that info, which is arguably much more meaningful than my blog post.

Mike W writes:

Glad to hear it...I thought the world was spinning out of control. If you had not responded so quickly it would have been interesting (though probably unkind) to see how many comments would argue in support of your post.

GU writes:

It's hard to believe that anyone thinks school funding is a major contributor to differences in academic achievement.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Every election, the local school board manages to put a property tax rate override on the ballot and mail everyone in the district their propaganda about why they need the extra money for the children.

Every election, the override loses.

It probably helps that the district's bus warehouse is fancier and nicer than any of the existing private buildings in the community, let alone the rest of the district's facilities.

Jeremy Bettis writes:

I doubt those numbers include capital expenditures such as that grand building, but if you included them, Boston would probably pull even farther ahead.

Mike W writes:

@ GU: It's hard to believe that anyone thinks school funding is a major contributor to differences in academic achievement.

Sarcasm again? Or maybe you don't vote in California.

NZ writes:

It's easy to believe that people think school funding is a major contributor to differences in academic achievement:

Simply consider this not as a reasoned position but as a desperately squirted cloud of squid ink, concealing other truths about differences in academic achievement that one would rather not have to think about or admit to thinking about.

Edogg writes:

Are the Boston public schools so famously bad? That's the clear premise of Scott's sarcasm, but I hadn't heard that they were so emblematic.

And do schools in "wealthy suburbs" have more funding than schools "dominated by black and hispanic students"? (I'm quoting Scott. I don't know that you shouldn't distinguish affluence, developed environment, race, and ethnicity.) Is the high funding of Boston public schools exceptional?

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

17k per student per year... wow. So the average family of three has to cough up 50k per year (through taxes or otherwise) for their kids primary education alone? Sounds a bit unsustainable to me. 17k is about what I spend on myself as an adult in total, living in a first world big city. If you squeeze 3k per student per year, that's 90k per classroom; should suffice to pay a teacher, a classroom and some overhead, id say. But im probably just being old-fashioned. We used to go fundraising as 14yolds to support our orchestra, so we could rehearse in an unheated-unairconditioned classroom after hours. But as long as the political fiction survives that if you throw a few 100M at an auditorium, test scores will magically improve (after all, as all wise people know, education spending and outcomes highly correlate!), this insanity will continue. To the detriment of poor people I might add, because you can bet they will be priced out of the actual essentials of education somewhere along the way in this kind of culture.

Keep up the good work in exposing the education bubble, econlog!

Scott Sumner writes:

An igyt, I've learned my lesson.

Edogg, There are a couple excellent public schools in Boston, such as the Boston Latin High School. Most of the schools are perceived to be quite mediocre, far worse than Newton schools.

I just thought it was amusing that the writers attributed Newton's great schools to it's affluence, when the central city right next door spends even more money and gets a much worse outcome. I'm not claiming that all that money spent in Boston has zero effect, I imagine there is at least a tiny effect. But it's silly to attribute major differences in academic outcomes to spending. You'd also find high per pupil spending in other big cities like New York City and DC. I believe you'd get lower spending in poor regions in the interior of the country.

Eelco, Last year Cambridge spent over $27,000 per pupil, this year I'm sure it's even more. And there are poor people in Cambridge too. That's over $80,000 for a family with three kids.

Floccina writes:

To add to the sarcasm: That is why utah schools are so bad.
Due to a number of factors, however, spending per student ranged widely among the 50 states. New York was the nation’s top spender, at $19,552 per pupil. Utah, on the other hand, spent just $6,206 for every student. Based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest release on education spending, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the states that spent the most and least on education per student.

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