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The Confederate Lawyer
March 4, 2011

The Economics of Education
by Charles G. Mills
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GLEN COVE, NY — Although Wisconsin doubled its spending on public education over a 10-year period, test scores went down. This kind of thing happens all the time. Can anyone read the Federalist papers and believe that today’s politicians are as well-educated as Hamilton, Madison, and Jay? Can anyone argue that the education of our founding fathers was expensive? A hundred years ago, single-teacher (“one-room”) schools turned out students fluent in Latin and Greek. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many persist in believing that more money will improve education.

Often, putting more money into an enterprise does improve the output. If one hires more widget makers in a factory, the factory will produce more widgets. Assuming the market for widgets is not saturated, the additional investment will pay off. Education, however, is a saturated market. Virtually every person in the United States between the ages of 6 and 16 is in school. Even if we spent 100 percent of our gross domestic product on education, we could not significantly increase the number of students.

Some will object that we can increase the number of students attending college, or at least earning high school diplomas. While this may be true, doing so does not necessarily constitute an improvement. Most junior and community colleges offer remedial courses to teach skills that a hundred years ago were required before students would be promoted from the fifth to the sixth grade, or even from the fourth to the fifth. If someone is impermeable to reading and arithmetic, they would still be analphabetic and need all their fingers and toes to count to 20, even if we moved them up all the way through a Ph.D. Even so, adding two years of community college to the education of every young person in the country cannot conceivably require a 10-fold increase in funding.

The real purpose of keeping the stubbornly uneducated in school longer and longer is to protect the jobs of unionized workers from younger competition by keeping the young in school and out of the job market.

If increasing spending on education does not increase the number of students and only marginally increases the amount of education they receive, where does the money go? Some of it may go toward decreasing class size. There is no evidence that reducing class size actually improves educational outcomes. In the 1950s, for example, parochial school classes of 50 or 60 outperformed public school classes of 30. What decreasing class size does improve is the employment of marginal teachers who would not be hired if class sizes were larger.

Some of the additional money goes to hire temporary teachers to cover for teachers out of the classroom on union duties. Does anyone believe this improves education? Much of the money goes to hire more assistant superintendents, vice principals, vice deans, assistant vice deans, coaches, and counselors. This is a little like answering a crisis in vocations and baptisms by consecrating more bishops. It is also like pulling riflemen out of rifle squads to increase the size of support elements of an infantry brigade.

Of course, if you think public education is all about winning varsity games and providing the best senior proms in the state, then by all means you should keep feeding money to your school district. If not, you can safely vote against any school district budget put before you and cut state and federal aid to education to a fraction of its present size.

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The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2011 by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.

Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles about the law.

See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.

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