Honolulu Advertiser Second Opinion column by Cliff Slater

October 14, 2002





(1) Part of the UH College of Education.

(2) Defined as “Total Expenditures” less “Federal receipts” as a percentage of “General Revenue own sources.” Tables 428 and 286 of Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2001. U.S. Census Bureau.

(3) State and Local tax and fee burden, Table 7, “Government in Hawaii 1998: A Handbook in Financial Statistics.” Tax Foundation of Hawaii.

(4) U.S. Census Statistical Abstract, Table No. 275. Public Elementary and Secondary Estimated Finances, 1980 to 1999, and by State, 1999

(5) “We determined that the State spent $6,998 per pupil in FY1998-99. These costs included moneys spent not only by the Department of Education but other departments as well.” State Auditor's Report #00-14: Fiscal Accountability Audit of the Department of Education: Analysis of Selected School Expenditures

(6) Aggregate student NAEP scores for all seven categories in the Student Achievement tables of the percent scoring at or above proficient in Quality Counts 2002. Only the 30 states with scores in all categories were used. Spending was from Resources: Adequacy table of the same publication.

(7) The NAEP is the only legitimate method of comparing states because that is what it was designed to do. SAT scores have too many variables and too few controls to provide legitimate comparisons.

(8) Spending vs. Student scores.

(9) A study of mostly public schools, “No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools.” found that the one factor separating these schools from others was management—the quality of the principals.

(10) State Auditor’s Report #02-02: Management Audit of the Department of Education's Storeroom

(11) Gerstner’s bio.


‘Facts’ about Hawaii education?

When the Associate Director of the Hawai’i Educational Policy Center (HEPC) at the University of Hawai’i(1) holds forth in these pages with “a few facts to help our debate on education” (10/3), one has a right to expect that these are facts to be trusted. However, when he said that, as a percentage of state and local taxes, other states spend twice a much as Hawaii on public education, I was skeptical. 

I checked; he’s wrong.

We spend 21.9% of tax revenues on education versus an average of 27.2% (2) for all other states (stick with me here, it gets exciting later). On this basis, we spend a little less (not half) than other states but solely because their average state and local taxes are 20% lower than Hawaii’s.(3) Were our taxes to be reduced by 20%, our education spending percentage (and tax burden) would fall in line with other states.

Thus, when we look at the $6,694 we spend per student we find we are average among the other states.(4) Note also that our State Auditor found that when all expenditures were included we spent $6,998 per student,(5) which is far more than what DOE reports spending.

There are two lessons here. First, state accounting is a mess. You can get at least a half dozen numbers for spending per student depending on whom you ask. Just imagine if investors got a half dozen answers for Bank of Hawaii’s profits depending on whom they asked. Investors would abandon the stock citing such uncertainties as chaotic, which is precisely what the state’s accounting is.

Second, reports written by people who depend on the education budget for their bread and butter can be relied upon to find (guess what?) that there is not enough bread and butter.

In any case, much as it is counter intuitive, education spending does not correlate strongly with student outcomes.(6) Comparing states’ per student spending with student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (7) we find that Utah, for example, spends less than any other state—$4,579 per student—yet is in the top third of student scores.(8) Rhode Island and Wyoming have the same scores as Utah yet spend twice as much. There is a lot more at play than just money—such as management.(9)

Then the HEPC tells us that we have very high percentage of our total education staff serve as teachers. In other words, there is no bloated bureaucracy.

These people may be labeled as teachers but they certainly do not appear to be teaching in the classroom. Teachers who have been around for 30 years, tell me that they have not seen any change in class size. Yet, even though we have exactly the same number of students as we had 30 years ago we have 3,500 more teachers. This strange situation prompted an earlier column from me asking, “Where are the teachers?”(4/18/97) wherein I suggested that we should get the missing teachers to call in. We could even check how many teachers’ paychecks were being mailed out of state. You never know.

Add to all this, the recent blistering report by the State Auditor on the millions of dollars of missing DOE equipment and inventory and it boils down to gross mismanagement at the DOE.(10) One cannot blame the present Superintendent who has spent her career working under totally inexperienced and incompetent managers. Who was she expected to learn from?

When IBM’s board had this kind of a mess on their hands they went outside the company to Nabisco, a biscuit manufacturer, to hire Lou Gerstner, as CEO.(11) [i] Not being a technician, he had to use his superb management skills, including a ability to learn through his staff, to determine what needed to be done to turn IBM around.

One would think that with a $1.4 billion budget, 240 locations, 18,000 employees and 180,000 customers that just a few experienced and hardheaded managers might come in useful.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater