It’s not often I recommend an Austin American Statesman editorial. Snidely nicknamed the “Socialist,” the liberal-leaning board rarely does much to live down the reputation. But this week they shine needed truth on the relationship between money and educational excellence. The editorial board writes: “But as much as money matters, it must be spent the right way to make the kind of gains our students need and deserve.”

Education is never cost-free; ask any homeschool family, private school headmaster, or charter school principal — there are real expenses that must be addressed.

At the same time, the Austin American Statesman notes what many of us correctly for years have been saying: “(n)o amount of money can correct for the years of bad decisions” in failing schools.

What has prompted the Statesman‘s concern about spending? The Austin Independent School District is going to ask taxpayers to hike property tax rates.

State and local figures show that Austin continues to spend considerably more money than several districts that compare in racial and ethnic makeup, income or size. Yet Austin lags well behind performance of the El Paso, Ysleta, Northside (San Antonio), Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (South Texas) and Cypress-Fairbanks (Houston) districts. All spend less per student than Austin and were rated “recognized” — the second-highest grade — on the state’s 2010 report card. Those districts are serving student populations that are largely minority and low-income. Among urban districts, Austin spends more than the Houston district, which has more than double the number of students, and Dallas, which has considerably more students. But Austin performed no better than Houston or Dallas on this year’s state report card. All three districts were rated academically acceptable, the equivalent of a C.

We have seen public education spending double in recent years, with academic performance remaining flat. There is a lot of blame to through around — fast-spending politicians, bulging bureaucracies, public employee unions and associations, bad-apple teachers, inattentive parents.

I’d suggest a leading cause for the exponential spending hikes in local schools, the problem can be traced to a lack of participation by too many of us. We too rarely vote in school board and school bond elections.

Yes, the elections are too often held on strange days when people aren’t paying attention. But we should be. Education makes up approximately one-third of the state budget, and between half and two-thirds of our local property tax bills.

You and I have to be more diligently involved, asking more penetrating questions about why dollars are being spent the way they are, and demanding that the school district spenders demonstrate the exact relationship between the first dollar spent in each budget with student academic performance.

Quoting the Statesman: “we all should question whether investing more money will yield better performance… Several trustees and Education Austin leaders rightly note that the district can’t cut its way to excellence. But it’s also true that the district cannot spend its way to excellence if many of its academic programs and improvements don’t work.”

Michael Quinn Sullivan

Michael Quinn Sullivan is the publisher of Texas Scorecard. He is a native Texan, a graduate of Texas A&M, and an Eagle Scout. Previously, he has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine contributor, Capitol Hill staffer, and think tank vice president. Michael and his wife have three adult children, a son-in-law, and a dog. Michael is the author of three books, including "Reflections on Life and Liberty."


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