School spending steeped in inefficiencies

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A guest editorial in the Sun News (12/19), written by Tom Swatzel, chairman of the Georgetown County Republican Party.

The public schools in Georgetown County were scheduled to spend $11,390 per child this school year. Of the large sum, $4,145 was provided by the state, $1,004 came from the federal government and more than half, or $6,241, was raised locally.

The media report that school district officials are now bracing for a $1.5 million shortfall. The midyear adjustment is result of recent budget cuts in Columbia. The shortfall works out to $148 per child, or just 1 percent of total spending. Local and federal funding are unaffected.

While the cut may be small, school district officials have already begun to make changes in how they spend taxpayers’ money. It was recently announced that $88,000 in overnight stays at a summer leadership conference have been eliminated. There is also a plan to save $125,000 through improvements in energy efficiency at district buildings.

Georgetown County Superintendent Randy Dozier has argued that his hands are, to a certain extent, tied. He notes that most of the $4,145 in per-student funding from the state comes in the form of programmatic or categorical grants. How the money is spent is dictated by state lawmakers and bureaucrats before it is distributed to local districts and schools. If legislators have allocated money for reading programs it must fund those programs – even if the local need is in math or science.

Dozier is right about the irrationality of programmatic funding. Thankfully, lawmakers in Columbia spent the summer carefully investigating the issue. Plans are now being developed for a K-12 funding model called “smart funding” or “backpacking,” where state money would be allocated on a strictly per-student basis. Important decisions about how and where to spend the money would be left to those most capable of making them: individual school principals and classroom teachers.

Still, Dozier and the school board are in a position to do more. According to the S.C. Budget and Control Board, Georgetown County public schools spend only 48 cents per dollar on classroom instruction. Spending on administration amounts to 35 cents per dollar, or more than $39 million in 2007. Dozier may be limited in how some state money is spent, but he enjoys much greater control over local inputs, which amount to more than half of the district’s budget.

Cleaning up the state funding formula and reducing bureaucratic waste will leave more money for students in the classroom. These issues are themselves just symptoms of a larger problem: government monopolization of public education.

Our social, economic and political systems require educated people. We, as the taxpayers, have a duty to provide each child in the state with access to effective classroom instruction. By confusing a “publicly provided education” and an education “for the public” with the monolithic notion of a strictly “public school” system, we have done our children a great disservice. We are ignoring the great accomplishments and fiscal hardships of students in private, charter, magnet and home schools. We have also invited the type of costly bureaucratic inefficiencies that Dozier and the Georgetown School Board are now struggling to correct.

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