Let them eat cake: and other mysteries of public school finance

By | September 13, 2014

PolitiFact Texas, the self-appointed arbiter of what is truth and what is fiction in Texas politics recently declared the statement of Matt Mackowiak about the state of education financing in an Opinion piece in the Austin American Statesman,

So,we spend an average of $12,000 per pupil per year. That is more than some four-year colleges. Is that not sufficient?

as Mostly False. The opinion was written by Mr. W. Gardner Selby.

Mr. Selby’s determination of truth is wrong, as I wrote to explain to him,

Dear Mr. Selby,

I read your fact-checking article about a statement made in a recent opinion piece by Matt Mackowiak. You declared Mr. Mackowiak’s statement about the amount we spend per pupil per year as mostly false. Your assessment was wrong, but understandable. First of all, as a journalist, you probably did not do well in mathematical endeavors while you sat in the school buildings and at school desks struggling over quadratic equations and probabilities, so I can understand if you got so wrapped up in trying to figure the math that all sense of reason you may have had was exhausted by the time you tried to figure out what was true and what was false. Secondly, as a political journalist, you have become so accustom to government finance-speak, that perhaps you are not in touch with how budgets work for real people. Believe it or not, most REAL people include their mortgage payment or rent in their personal “operating” budget.

When you declared Mr. Mackowiak’s statement false, you did so because you excluded the debt service payments and capital outlay related to infrastructure, known to us common people as the mortgage payment.

If the very building our children occupy during the school day, or the desks they rest their derrieres while in the school buildings are not part of the cost of educating our children, then perhaps we do not need school buildings, or school desks or playgrounds or school buses as part of that educational experience. They can just move the classroom outside.

Since the cost of the buildings and furniture and vehicles don’t count, in your estimation, as part of the cost of educating our children, then perhaps you should not pay your mortgage or rent, your car payment or any debt you took on to buy the furnishings for your home. You could take to living outdoors.

A little fresh air might do some good.

It only took moments; Mr. Selby responded to my email:

You’re a good writer. The consultant overshot in that he aired a figure that not only rolled in capital and debt costs but other costs that experts consider double-counting and/or unrelated to how much it costs to run the schools. He missed, by the way, even though the news story he cited presented a figure about half of what he declared.

Thank you for the close read.

Notable: I have to bike somewhere in a few minutes. So I will be getting some fresh air.

The number Mr. Mackowiak came up with may have included some double-counting of costs, but I would venture the double counting did not amount to $20 billion, or $4,000 per pupil in Texas public schools.