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School spending fails to make the grade


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Dear Mr. Berko:

This year, the Florida Legislature passed a $70 billion budget, and $22 billion of that will be spent on public education. Ten years ago, public education spending cost $10.5 billion. That’s twice as much, and our schools (especially my alma mater, the University of Florida) are not getting twice as good. In fact, many of us would say that the quality of education is really twice as bad. Why is it that college costs increase so much each year but the quality of the education doesn’t seem to improve one bit? I know this isn’t a financial question, but if higher education enables us to earn more money, why don’t we improve our ability to learn? Perhaps if people were better educated by our colleges and high schools, we might not be in this economic mess today. Test scores are falling nationwide, which says that our schools are not doing the job we pay them to do. The answer is important to me. But if you don’t respond, I will understand.

R.D., Gainesville, Fla.

Dear R.D.:

Raising money for education is as easy as raising money for motherhood and family values. There isn’t a legislator in the Florida House or Senate who would not blindly vote to increase spending on education, from K-12 through the university level. Vocally strident teachers’ unions and their lobbyists equate any funding denial or even cutbacks as un-American. No politician wants to be considered anti-motherhood, anti-family values or anti-education.

So our schools cavalierly discharge their duties with the same criminal disquietude with which Congress manages the affairs of the country. Meanwhile, state legislatures patriotically shovel bushels of money into thousands of school systems around the nation. Our educational system uses that money not to become better, but to get bigger, a lot bigger.

Florida K-12 school administrators tell you: “We are spending $7,143 per student this year to educate your children compared with $5,384 five years ago.” And that’s correct. But truth be told, 76 percent of that increase was spent on administration, not classroom education. Most of us are familiar with the maxim “If you can’t do it, you teach it, and if you can’t teach it, you become an administrator.” Well, I know enough to do both well. If given the authority, I could waltz into almost any public school system and reduce costs by 25 percent, reduce class size, increase teacher pay and improve the quality of the educational process in 12 months. It’s common sense and as simple as boiling an egg.

Be mindful that universities use money to get bigger not better, which is certainly true at the University of Florida. UF is run by hundreds of little fiefdoms with a laughable accountability for costs, little accountability for efficiency and even less accountability for results — unless it’s football or basketball, to which the educational process takes a distant back seat.

The school’s ratio of employees to students is embarrassing. UF has more square feet under roof per student than most universities in the country and more than any university in Europe. Most UF administrators treat their departments like personal satrapies and believe their primary responsibility is to ensure job security by expanding their department authority and responsibilities. The University of Florida has 35,000 employees and 50,000 students. That’s one employee per 1.4 students, and that’s unconscionable! In 1998 there were 2.3 students per employee.

Meanwhile, the employee-to-student ratio in K-12 school districts in Florida has increased by 84 percent in the past decade. Bigger is not better.

The level of bureaucratic plunder in our nation’s school systems continues to accelerate faster than state tax bases and faster than the growth in national incomes. In fact, there’s an inverse ratio between growth in administration spending and student achievement.

Too many cooks spoil the broth, and the result is that grade inflation exploded like a space rocket. In 1980, 28 percent of students taking the SAT reported having a high school average of A, A-minus or A-plus. Ten years ago, 38 percent of students reported GPAs that high. This year, 48 percent of students reported those results. I find it difficult to believe that students have gotten that much smarter, considering the reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined each year from 1988 to 2006.

Meanwhile, colleges like the University of Phoenix, Strayer University, DeVry University and ITT Educational Services provide accredited undergraduate and advanced degrees at a fraction of UF’s costs, and they don’t pay coaches $3 million or $4 million salaries.

Colleges that suck money from the public trough ought to be run on a Wal-Mart business model. Our colleges must have accountability to the taxpayers and the students and must place the same emphasis on education excellence as they do on competitive sports.

Please address your financial questions to Malcolm Berko, P.O. Box 1416, Boca Raton, Fla. 33429 or e-mail him at malber@comcast.net. © 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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