- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

When Superintendent Paul Vance proposed his $848 million fiscal 2004 budget early last month, School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz declared that she and her board colleagues "will be studying it very, very carefully." Since Mr. Vance's budget reflected a rather stunning $107 million increase during a period when D.C. finances are under stress, it surely needed to be reviewed "very, very carefully." Last month, unfortunately, Mrs. Cafritz and her board colleagues voted 7-0 (with two members absent), to approve Mr. Vance's proposal without changing even a comma. "We have a crisis in education in this city that is a result of years and years of neglect," Mrs. Cafritz said. Indeed, there is a crisis.
Compared to a national per-pupil expenditure averaging less than $7,500, D.C. schools this year will spend $11,000 per student. With a steadily declining student enrollment currently estimated at 67,500, Mrs. Cafritz and the rest of the board seek to spend more than $12,500 per student next year.
While it is clear that D.C. taxpayers have generously funded their public school system in both absolute and relative terms, what sort of results have these massive expenditures achieved? Reviewing data on per-pupil spending and fourth-grade reading levels, Hoover Institution scholar Herbert Walberg has recently confirmed the worst.
In a provocative and innovative study based on 1998 data (the latest comparable data available), Mr. Walberg established a cost index of how productively the states and the District use tax dollars to produce proficient fourth-grade readers. In 1998, the national average student cost for public education (K-12) was $6,189. For each fourth-grader, therefore, U.S. taxpayers had cumulatively invested about $30,945 (five years @ $6,189). However, only 29 percent of fourth-graders were proficient readers, according to the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test. To generate his cost index, Mr. Walberg determined the average national cost to produce one proficient fourth-grade reader by dividing the five-year cumulative per-student investment ($30,945) by 29 percent. Thus, the cost index totaled $107,000. In order to draw comparisons, Mr. Walberg made similar calculations for the states and the District based on their per-pupil spending and their respective percentages of proficient readers. Then he ranked the results.
With only 10 percent of its fourth-graders reading at a proficient level, the District ranked dead last by a significant amount. District per-pupil spending, of course, was at the high end of the scale. The net result was that the District spent an astounding $420,000 to produce each fourth-grader able to read at the proficient level. This was nearly four times the national average.
Mr. Walberg did not make calculations for the latest (2000) NAEP math tests. But back-of-the-envelope calculations can easily be made. Incredibly, the District results are much more horrific for math than for reading. That's because only 6 percent of D.C. public school students in both the fourth and eighth grades performed at the proficient level in math. That means it cost about $700,000 to produce one fourth-grader proficient at math. For the eighth grade, in whose students taxpayers have invested four more years of high-priced D.C. education, District residents pay an astounding $1.25 million to produce a single student proficient at math.
What does Mrs. Cafritz have to say about this disgraceful state of affairs?


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