Lawrence O'Donnell is a "political analyst" for MSNBC (although his analysis often as not appears to be unrelated to any known reality, except rudeness). He also produces and writes The West Wing. Last night's episode was one of the last in the final season of the fantasy Democratic rule in Washington, D.C., and as the credit's reveal, O'Donnell wrote it.
The episode focused on Matt Santos (obsessively addressed as "Mr. President Elect") and his wife acclimating to their new life in Washington. Santos proves himself instantly to be a savvy political operative; his wife, an idiot. Despite years as a Congressman's wife, a year's hard campaigning, she is aghast to discover that they'll be living with security.
What got me, though, was the focus on their attempting to find a school for their child. These saintlike Democrats first look at the private schools, but just can't deal with places where none of the kids smile. (Yes, apparently in D.C. private schools, they regularly beat the children, which is the only thing I can think of that would account for this observation.) Santos is also aghast at the tuition: "$25,000 — imagine if they spent that per child at the public schools," he says.
Well, Messrs. Santos and O'Donnell, it turns out that, in fact, Washington, D.C.'s public schools do spend as much as (if not more) per student than many of its private schools — it just doesn't get anything in return for that money:
The District of Columbia spends far more money per student in its public elementary and secondary schools each year than the tuition costs at many private elementary schools, or even college-preparatory secondary schools. Yet, District 8th-graders ranked dead last in 2005 in national reading and math tests.
D.C.'s public elementary and secondary schools spent a total of $16,334 per student in the 2002-2003 school year, according to a Department of Education study. That compares to the $10,520 tuition at St. John's College High School, a District Catholic school that sends almost all its graduates to four-year colleges.
Last year, however, only 12% of 8th-graders in the District's public schools scored at grade-level proficiency or better in reading in the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress tests that were administered in the District and all 50 states. Only 7% of the District's public-school 8th-graders scored grade-level proficiency or better in math.
It is true that certain private schools do cost $25,000, including the Sidwell School. (Although I do notice that the school, for its web page, was able to round up some smiling children.) The Sidwell School, in case you've forgotten, was the school the populist Clinton's chose for Chelsea,who seems to have turned into a very nice young woman. However, just to give a little perspective, I live in one of the most pricey communities in the U.S., and the top private school tuitions run between $15,000 and $19,000. You can get huge amounts of quality education for what the public schools waste annually.
And waste they do. It took about one second of internet research to discover, for example, that the well endowed D.C. public school district is just throwing money away:
The D.C. school system spends too much money on maintenance of underused buildings and too little on classroom instruction, according to a report issued yesterday that compared spending patterns in the District with those in 45 other urban school districts.
The independent study, commissioned by the D.C. school board, added momentum to a recent push by the board and the D.C. Council to close and consolidate underenrolled schools. Council members, who are scheduled to vote today on a measure providing an additional $100 million a year to modernize schools, have said they expect the system to shed its excess space. And the board responded last week by promising to get rid of 3 million square feet of underused space by summer 2008.
I don't blame any individual administrator, nor do I have enough information even to venture whether there is a culture of corruption at that school district. I will say, though, that this casual misuse of money, as well as the fact that the school fails to provide any bang whatsoever for the taxpayer buck, is typical of a public sector institution. They'll stay afloat no matter how badly run they are, and competition is irrelevant to them. There's no need to offer a better product to entice consumers, nor will financial malfeasance cause them to lose those same, poor, trapped, mostly black consumers. These schools can just do the same old, same old, very badly. And when things get awful, they ask for — and get — more money to amp up their horribleness.
I'm lousy at conclusions, so I'll limit mine here to one word: Vouchers.