- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003

Large and small colleges across America are struggling with ways to pay the bills.

Schools that once relied on a reliable supply of business majors to balance the books are facing hot competition both from for-profit schools such as DeVry University and from Internet and Cisco certification programs, whose graduates can often get high-paying computer-related jobs without studying at a university. Liberal arts schools also struggle to attract students in a job market that remains unkind to history or English majors.

A very fine guide to all the turmoil in university finance is David L. Kirp’s Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education (Harvard University Press, $29.95, 263 pages). Mr. Kirp, a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, obtained a Ford Foundation grant to study how schools sell themselves. Along with a team of graduate students, many of whom collaborated on various chapters, Mr. Kirp has produced a quite interesting guide on how schools market themselves to both prospective students and potential donors.

Mr. Kirp finds that the constant need for cash has caused schools to transform themselves dramatically. Every school now tries to find its particular “brand” that makes it distinctive. One of Mr. Kirp’s chapters looks at the University of Chicago, and how that fine institution has struggled to maintain its high standards without seeming to be a magnet for students with high intelligence and limited social skills. Another good chapter looks at how the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia has become so profitable that it has become in effect a privatized section of a state university.

Mr. Kirp is both quite fair and a good reporter; he has a keen eye for the important ways in which bean-counting has transformed universities, making them financially responsible and also more concerned about developing lucrative specialities than preserving the liberal arts and humanities.

“Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line” is one of the best education books of the year, and anyone interested in higher education will find it to be superior.

One of the many controversies in high schools is whether or not boys and girls should be taught in mixed classes or separately. Many feminists have adopted as an orthodoxy the notion that female single-sex schools empower girls, while boys’ schools remain bastions of male privilege. Anyone hoping to understand this highly contentious issue ought to read Rosemary C. Salomone’s Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling (Yale University Press, $29.95, 243 pages).

The author, who teaches at St. John’s University Law School, presents herself as a moderate who sees both the benefits of gender feminism and of single-sex schools. Most of her book is a legal history and analysis, beginning with court cases that eliminated most public single-sex schools. (The two exceptions — girls’ schools in Baltimore and Philadelphia — survive because they quietly discourage boys from attending and because no boy has offered to be the plaintiff of an anti-discrimination lawsuit.)

As a legal scholar, the author is particularly insightful in discussing how the courts have treated the issue of single-sex schools. She notes that Title IX, which mandates equity in sports, could have been worded in such a way as to outlaw single-sex schools, but the law’s ambiguity ensures that single-gender public schools are still legal. She suggests that a useful reform would be to loosen Title IX’s rules to allow public schools to set up single-gender classes within schools. These classes are currently outlawed.

“Same, Different, Equal” is a thoughtful, dispassionate analysis of one of the fieriest of education’s many hot-button issues. This is a serious and fair-minded book that will deepen the knowledge of any reader who wants to study the strengths and weaknesses of single-sex schools.

A puzzling question about public education is how much schools actually cost the taxpayer. As Myron Lieberman and Charlene K. Haar show in Public Education as a Business: Real Costs and Accountability (Scarecrow, $32.95, 219 pages), the true costs of education are probably much higher than official statistics make them out to be.

Mr. Lieberman and Mrs. Haar, who are both affiliated with the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, are experts in education finance. It should be noted, though, that education finance is not the most thrilling of subjects, and not many readers will be excited about books with chapter topics that include “Infrastructure Costs and GASB Statement No. 34.” In fact, the authors tell their readers more than once to persevere through number-laden sections.

But the authors are on to something. The ways costs are counted have a significant effect on how schools are run. You can’t save money on schools if you don’t know how much schools actually spend. And since charter schools have their budgets determined by a per-student fee based on official estimates of how much public schools spend per student, low-balling these numbers deprives charters of a great deal of money.

Schools, it turns out, understate costs in many ways. They base per-pupil spending estimates on the number of children who enter school in the fall, and not on average daily attendance. Since many children drop out during the year, counting potential dropouts understates per-pupil costs by between $500 and $750 per student. Other ways public schools hide their costs include deferring maintenance expenses and understating (sometimes dramatically) the true costs of teachers’ pensions.

“Public Education as a Business” is not for the casual reader. But the financial issues the authors analyze are critically important to understanding our public schools. Readers who persevere with this book will be able to scrutinize public schools’ accounting practices — and judge whether cuts should be made.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds.”

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