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Lesson 10.2

Go Big:
What Money Might Do

What if money were no object in education?

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What if schools in your district had a lot more money to work with? How would they spend it? How should they spend it?

This question isn't quite as idle as it might seem. After all, there are examples. Some private independent prep schools charge more than $50,000 per student in annual tuition. Over the course of a K-12 education that's more than half a million dollars. On top of tuition, these schools raise even more money through donations. For comparison, California spent $12,498 per public school pupil in 2018. Adjusting for inflation, this means the average cumulative investment that California makes in each student's K-12 education is on the order of $145,000.

When it comes to public education, California has long been among the lowest-funded states in America. Over the course of a K-12 education, the differences add up. One implication is that California schools can afford fewer teachers than other states.

Students spend about 1,000 hours per year in class. In rough terms, $50,000 per year per student translates to about $50 per student per hour, four times the $12.50 per hour committed to the education of the average student in public school. How are these posh schools different from schools that must make do with less?

What do they do with all that money?

Some private independent prep schools charge more than $50,000 per student in annual tuition, the equivalent of about $50 per classroom hour

They pay more for great leadership. A private school leader who wins the confidence of the board, the teachers, and the most influential parents can earn over a quarter of a million dollars per year. In public school systems, this level of compensation is possible, but only to superintendents of large districts. Beyond the school leader, most private school boards also commit additional resources to invest in an office staff that can support the operation of the school, including positions focused on communication, discipline, teacher training, counseling, alumni relations and operations. They don't limp along with mere clerical and janitorial support.

They create working conditions that get the job done. General teaching positions in independent schools don't necessarily pay more than those in public schools, but the working conditions are very different. These schools usually have small class sizes, allowing teachers to work more deeply with students. They also have the flexibility to attract faculty with special expertise. Teaching positions in independent schools also tend to include paid prep time, training opportunities during summer months and a qualified pool of substitute teachers to keep the wheels on when a teacher must be out of the classroom.

They offer a full curriculum. Without serious financial limits, these schools can and do offer a curriculum that doesn't cut corners - complete with arts, athletics, computer science and all the other things that are on your school's wish list. Some (for even more money) also offer summer programs and after school programs as well.

They tend to have good facilities, increasingly including technology. Though independent school facilities vary a lot, they tend to be pretty nice. It is uncommon for rich schools to cut corners on equipment that they deem important for instruction, particularly including lab equipment and digital network infrastructure. There is no significant evidence that these schools are replacing teachers with technology - they invest in both. (See lesson 6.6 for information on how schools incorporate tech into education).

For these schools, college admissions is a more meaningful measure of success than test scores.

They focus resources personally, with the end in mind. In many schools with ample resources, each student is assigned individually to a faculty advisor for multiple years. If the student falls behind, these advisors serve as case managers: they find ways to bring school resources to identify and address problems. If an advisor determines that a student needs some additional academic or other support, the school will, for example, try to provide that additional help. (Note: typically students with special education needs are served in public schools. Most private schools do not provide that kind of support.)

In many private high schools, the standard high school curriculum also includes time and resources for college counseling. For these schools, college admissions is a more meaningful measure of success than test scores. In fact, most private schools use annual standardized tests, but they use different ones than the public schools, making school-level comparisons difficult. Research using the Nation's Report Card (NAEP) implies little difference between public and private schools, generally.

They communicate with alumni. Well-established private schools invest in relationships with alumni, communicating regularly to build and sustain relationships that can lead to all kinds of valuable outcomes. Alumni serve as interns or return as teachers. They donate toward capital needs such as facilities upgrades and scholarship funds. In the conversations about such donations, alumni provide valuable feedback about changes the school ought to make.

They select only well-prepared students (with no mandate to educate the rest.) A big difference between public schools and spendy private schools is selectivity. Private schools pick their students, and they want students who are likely to succeed in school. Most private prep schools want kids who will succeed academically, and they are reluctant to admit kids who will have trouble keeping up. Admissions choices are a big deal; the competition for a seat in the "right" preschool can be intense. Over 15 years of private preschool, elementary school, middle school and high school, on a cumulative basis these students enter college with over half a million private dollars already invested in their education.

Money is only good for what it can buy

Obviously, there are only so many lessons that an ordinary school with ordinary funding and open enrollment can draw from the choices made by selective private schools with few practical limits. Still, money is only good for what it can buy. These schools can at least help inspire the wish list.

Of course, a wish list for the dream school in a high-poverty setting would be considerably longer, wouldn't it? Imagine if a switch were thrown and, like Freaky Friday, suddenly a well-funded private school (complete with its leaders, teachers, and facilities) were teleported into a community with high needs. It wouldn't be equipped to address some of the real needs that make education challenging, like hunger, language barriers, community safety conditions, health problems, housing and transportation. Addressing those things would require reconsidering the scope of responsibility for a school.

The shift to local control of education funding under the Local Control Funding Formula did not make California districts rich, but it created new opportunities for choices.

Updated January 2020, July 2021


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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh December 7, 2019 at 8:20 pm
“Note: typically students with special education needs are served in public schools. Most private schools do not provide that kind of support.”
That’s right. And it makes me wonder how this type of segregation is still legal.
user avatar
Denise Dafflon September 12, 2021 at 11:33 pm
Thanks for your comment. I also wonder... and as a community member I am harmed that this is legal...
user avatar
Caryn-C September 18, 2017 at 11:07 am
It's a handy formula until I apply it to what my district is able to spend on my child. And then it kinda makes me want to hurl. Less than seven dollars per hour?!!
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