Let me explain using very back of the envelope math.
City Based Education Reform is Very Cheap
My rough estimate is that New Orleans, over the past 10 years or so, has received about $100-$150 million of grant funding (either philanthropic or governmental).*
Let’s call it $120 million. At roughly 40,000 students, that’s $3,000 per student over the ten years – or $300 a year.
You could move these estimates up or down, but I’m pretty sure you’d stay between $200 and $400 a year per student.
Of course, if you don’t believe New Orleans schools are any better than before, then all we’re arguing about was how much money was wasted.
But in considering that high school graduation rates have gone up by over twenty percentage points, New Orleans charter schools deliver five months of extra learning per student when compared to similarly situated traditional schools, and New Orleans proficiency rates have climbed to near the state average – I view this as money well spent.
I know of no other reforms that have delivered similar results for $300 per student, per year.
In this sense, the reforms have been an extremely cost effective. Or to put it another way: very cheap.
Additionally, public education spending over this time was about $4,000,000,000.
So the additional investment of $120 million amounted to about 3% of all public spending.
City Based Education Reform is Prohibitively Expensive
But what would this mean for larger cities?
In Nashville, a ten-year transformation plan would cost $240 million.
In San Diego, a ten-year transformation plan would cost $360 million.
In Philadelphia, a ten-year transformation plan would cost $480 million.
In Chicago, a ten-year transformation plan would cost over $1 billion.
If numerous cities attempted to adopt similar reforms, it is unlikely that current philanthropic and governmental grant programs could cover the transitional costs. It’s plausible, I suppose, but unlikely – in terms of both the absolute money available as well as the coordination that would be needed.
The Need for Public Funding
Given these costs, I’m skeptical that reforms such as New Orleans will scale without additional direct public funding.
But given that we are talking about the future of our public schools, I view the need for public funding as a good thing.
Philanthropy can play a role in partnering with local communities to create an initial set of proof points.
But, at scale, these types of reforms should be approved – and paid for – by the citizens of cities (who live with the schools in their communities) or states (who have a constitutional duty to ensure every student receives a sound education) or perhaps even the federal government.
Because I believe these reforms can do much good for families and communities, I hope that governmental leaders – and the citizens that elect them – invest these resources in these high need communities.
I’d be happy to work directly with any governors or mayors who wished to design such an investment – especially since granting public dollars efficiently can be much more difficult than granting philanthropic dollars, which are subject to fewer regulations.
One Last Thing
We’ve spent of $3.5 billion on school improvement grants.
We spend $2.3 billion on Title II funds each year.
And in cities such as Newark, Hartford, and Washington D.C. – which already spend more money than most public school systems in the world – simply diverting a small percentage of existing traditional school revenues into an investment pool could go a long way.
Is city based education reform very cheap or prohibitively expensive?
It depends on how you look at it.
*It’s worth mentioning that government spending on education has also increased in New Orleans (and all of Louisiana) over the past decade – bringing Louisiana spending close to national averages. However, these funds have been allocated on a per-pupil basis, and not invested in the same manner as the grant funding has been.