February 19, 2017

Sina-cism: Oh, but it’s for the children, after all

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A recent story leaves no doubt that the schools are starved for funds, a complaint which has been voiced by urban public schools for about the last 50 years.
Chris Sinacola

Chris Sinacola

According to a report in last week’s Telegram & Gazette, Worcester Superintendent of Schools Maureen Binienda is spending about one-fifth of her time pursuing private funds to bolster the city’s public school budget.

As the story puts it:

“From the development of a district strategic plan to pencils for the PSAT, Ms. Binienda has sought the help of local businesses and groups to provide what her system’s own slim budget can’t …”

It’s not clear who’s calling the WPS budget slim, but the story leaves no doubt that the schools are starved for funds, a complaint which has been voiced by urban public schools for about the last 50 years, ever since post-World War II America ran into the financial realities of financing the Great Society welfare state.

Before we examine the finances, one general observation: While advocates for district public schools object vociferously to every dollar “drained” by public charter schools — which, in their illogic, amounts to the “privatization” of public education — no one seems to mind when public schools pursue actual private funding.

Not that I blame Binienda for seeking more money. Most organizations prefer more money to less, and the stuff does come in handy.

But, for the record, district public schools aren’t the only ones who solicit and accept private funding, or whose teachers and parents pay for things out of their own pockets. Teachers, parents and students at charter public schools do the same, as do those at Catholic and private schools. It’s a universal behavior.

As to that “slim” WPS budget: For fiscal 2017, the figure is $377,118,333, with projected student enrollment of 25,110. The figures are from the WPS’ 416-page budget document online here.

I realize that only specially trained educrats with advanced degrees are capable of weighing the many factors, exclusions, exceptions, asterisks and qualifications needed to produce the “correct” per-pupil spending figure.

I am limited to simple division: $377 million for 25,110 students comes to $15,018 per student.

Oh, I hear the cries from Irving Street. And ignore them. Because $15,000 is — or should be — plenty to educate the average child in Worcester.

Pick any source you like — U.S. Census Bureau education spending, Governing magazine reports, Ouija boards — and you’ll find that Massachusetts is consistently among the top dozen states for per-pupil public education spending.

Nationwide, the figure is about $11,000 per student. In Massachusetts, it’s about $15,000, as it is in Worcester.

Perhaps you think $15,000 is too little. If so, try spending $45,000 or more for one year at a private preparatory school. Or $10,000 or less for a year at a Catholic high school. Or educate your children yourself for a couple hundred dollars in textbooks and untold hours of commitment.

Whatever your choice, the results — in test scores, graduation and matriculation rates, employment, or whatever measure you choose — will be in proportion to the effort, intelligence and excellence of your methods. Results have little to do with dollars spent.

More than a century ago, Clarence F. Carroll, then-superintendent of Worcester Public Schools, penned an essay on educational institutions for “The Worcester of Eighteen Hundred and Ninety-Eight,” the 800-page tome that summarized the first half-century of Worcester as a city.

Public schools, Carroll asserted, “have been the chief instrument in promoting the intelligence of the people, and we must depend upon them in the future to insure to every home the priceless blessings of an advancing Christian civilization.”

The cost of that education for the 20,000 Worcester public school children of 1897, was about $27.51 per scholar.

I’m not suggesting that you multiply that sum by the average annual rate of inflation over the intervening 120 years to determine whether Worcester is providing greater or lesser value than it was during the administration of President McKinley. Any such comparison is obviously absurd. Besides, these days our public schools don’t “advance Christian civilization” except by accident — and then apologize profusely for doing so.

Lighten up, I’m joking.

And I really don’t care whether private companies and foundations shell out their dollars to support public education. Their money, their choice. If they perceive such expenditures as sound investments, I wish all parties involved the best of luck.

I only ask that we once and for all drop the pretense that in a nation as wealthy as ours, in a city as well off as Worcester, $377 million for public education is somehow a scandalous dereliction of our civic duties.

It isn’t. It isn’t even close.

Chris Sinacola is a Worcester Sun columnist. His observations on politics, current events, history and more appear every Sunday.

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