Pepperdine’s Soggy Waffle
By Peter Schrag
Education research, someone famously said many years ago, “is a soggy waffle.” Nothing demonstrates that better than the latest version of a Pepperdine University report purporting to show that, as one headline summarized it, since 2003 “California schools spent less in the classroom as budgets increased.”
Politically, especially for tax cutting conservatives these days, it’s a great weapon. But as research, it’s hard to imagine a soggier waffle.
School districts, the report suggests, don’t need more money. If they just devoted enough to the classroom and cut out the waste, especially the money spent on bureaucrats, they could hire thousands of additional teachers, give every student a computer and still have money left over. In just one year, the report says, the state could have captured an additional $1.7 billion for the classroom, good for 21,000 more teachers.
It’s the pet argument of a deep pockets operative named Patrick Byrne, the CEO of Overstock.com and his First Class Education organization that’s been pushing something they call “the 65 Percent Solution.” It would require every district to spend 65 percent of its money on classroom instruction. It’s on the definition of what’s included in classroom instruction that the waffle gets soggy.
In the face of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed tax extensions and the certainty that school spending would be slashed if they weren’t passed, a version of the 65 percent solution is now being trotted out by the state Chamber of Commerce Education Foundation and tax cutter Joel Fox’s Small Business Action Committee. Exhibit A is the Pepperdine study.
Oddly enough, there was a time when the UTLA, United Teachers of Los Angeles, maybe the most pugnacious teacher union in the country, made a similar argument in its fight with the district’s bureaucrats. In 1998, it funded Proposition 223, a failed initiative that would have limited school district spending on administration to no more than five percent of their budgets. The same kind of questions that led to its defeat then plague the Pepperdine report now.
Because the full report, which runs to some 2000 pages and includes breakdowns for hundreds of California districts, was funded by the Chamber and the Fox group, its authors faced a special hurdle in insulating themselves against the suspicion, if not the charge, that they were hired guns of the right. But if they tried to do that, the report badly fails them.
In their breakdown, in 2008-9 California schools spent just 57.8 percent of their budgets in the classroom, down from 59 percent in 2003-4. In the same period, says the report, total school spending was up 22 percent, from $45.6 billion to $55.6 billion.
Meanwhile, however, the National Center for Education Statistics pegs California’s in-class spending at 67.1 percent, above the national average, and above some 40 other states. The federal NCES data also show that that California is 47th in the nation in the ratio of administrators to students, 51st in guidance counselors and 51st in librarians. All those numbers are for the 2006 fiscal year.
The difference, as Michael Shires, one of the authors of the Pepperdine study concedes, depends mainly on what you count. Pepperdine did not include counselors or nurses or the cost of heating, cooling or cleaning classrooms; did not include any of the cost of busing the kids to school, or general maintenance of facilities, or insurance and security, or the pay of cafeteria workers or a list of other items.
The authors used state Department of Education budget codes for their analysis, which Shires says is a “clean” way of determining what’s spent in the classroom and what isn’t. But it could as easily be defined as a minimalist approach perfectly suited to the argument that the schools already have plenty of money. Bob Blattner, a long time fiscal consultant for California school districts, says the Pepperdine authors simply misread the state’s fiscal codes. For some items in the report, he said, he doesn’t know “where this hoooooey came from.”
What makes the Pepperdine numbers even more questionable are the years used for the study. Its base year, 2003-4, was a recession year when all school spending was down. The spike in revenue in the years following came in better times when, under the terms of Proposition 98, California’s minimum school funding formula, the system had to be made whole for what it lost during the recession.
The governor and legislature, knowing that a one-time windfall should never go to teacher pay and other ongoing expenses, put much of it into earmarked short-term expenditures for non-classroom purposes, among them Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s after-school child care program. It’s not surprising, especially considering the definitions that the authors used, that in those years total school spending would go up while the percentage going into the classroom went down.
Shires is an experienced, ethical researcher in state and local government fiscal issues. He’s written respected studies while he was at RAND and at the Public Policy Institute of California before joining the Pepperdine faculty (itself sometimes regarded as a hive of conservatives). He knows that the last thing he should be linked to is something that seems overtly political in design.
But that’s what the three authors, who also included Stephen Frates and Ian Rudge, produced. This is not a document so even-handed and persuasive that it will overshadow its conservative anti-tax associations “We felt it was important,” said Joel Fox when the new version was released last week, “to have an honest debate about the facts out there.” But that’s not what they started.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in
the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and
columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost:
California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High
Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale.