A Teaching Moment From the District of Columbia

The District of Columbia deserves the gratitude of taxpayers everywhere for giving the nation a lesson in governance. It is proving that spending more on public schools is a waste of money.

That was the unintended lesson of the press conference District Mayor Adrian Fenty called this week to announce that half the District’s public schools would not have proper textbooks for opening day and half the school buildings would not have air conditioning.

This is not because the District has been frugal. Its public schools wallow in cash.

Their profligacy is made possible, in part, by federal taxpayers, who according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), provided a subsidy of $2,383 per student enrolled in the District’s primary and secondary schools in the 2003-2004 school year. That was more than the per-pupil subsidy for any state and almost three times the national average of $864.

The District also spent a lot of its own money, racking up a combined local and federal total of $15,414 in spending per pupil in average daily attendance. That, too, was more than any state, nearly doubling the national average of $8,899.

Given that half the District’s school buildings don’t have working air-conditioners and half the schools won’t have their books on time, you might be tempted to guess that the District spends more money on, say, teachers than on facilities and administrators. Don’t give in to the temptation.

In 2003-2004, says NCES, the District spent $1,869 per student on "capital outlays." That was money "for the acquisition of land and buildings; building construction, remodeling and additions; the initial installation or extension of service systems and other built-in equipment; and site improvement."

Additionally, the District spent $1,464 per student on "operation and maintenance." This included "salary, benefits, supplies, and contractual fees for supervision of operations and maintenance, operating buildings (heating, lighting, ventilating, repair and replacement), care and upkeep of grounds and equipment, vehicle operations and maintenance (other than student transportation), security, and other operations and maintenance services."

That means the District spent a total of $3,333 per student to make sure there were enough new and remodeled buildings and sufficient maintenance staff to keep the air-conditioners going. Of all the states, only frozen Alaska approached this level of spending for facilities and maintenance, spending a combined $3,220 per student on these two categories.

Now, you might be tempted to think that the District spent so much buying and maintaining buildings that it could not afford the crack administrators needed to order textbooks. Don’t give in to that temptation, either.

The District spent $662 per student on "school administration" and $302 per student on "general administration." The former included the "salary, benefits, supplies, and contractual fees" for "the office of the principal, full-time department chairpersons and graduation expenses," the latter included the money for the "boards of education staff and executive administration."

That means the District spent $964 per student for two layers of administrators who were supposed to make sure the books arrived on time. Only two states, New Jersey ($1,049) and Vermont ($1,045) spent more.

Now, you might be tempted to think that the District spent so much on buildings, maintenance and administrators that it could not afford teachers. It also would be a mistake to surrender to this temptation.

The District spent $664 per student on "instructional staff," a category that includes not only old-fashioned classroom teachers, but also "expenditures for curriculum development, staff training, libraries, and media and computer centers."

Compared to the money spent on buildings, maintenance and administrators, this $664 might seem paltry. Forget that temptation, too. The District spent more per pupil on "instructional staff" than any state.

In return, however, it got less "instruction" than any state.

In the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests administered to eighth-graders, only 12 percent of District students scored grade-level proficient in reading and only 7 percent scored grade-level proficient in math. No state did that poorly. The District spent the most money and got the worst results.

But when District kids are sweating in their classrooms later this month waiting for their books to arrive, at least they will have the satisfaction of knowing they attend the most expensive public schools in the United States.