I have a pin that I often wore when I was in public office that says, “If you think education is expensive, consider the cost of ignorance.” This is a quote from Derek Bok, an American lawyer and educator, and the former president of Harvard University. This quote, I think, is especially pertinent in today’s America. As the Kansas Legislature looks at the cost of K-12 education, they should not forget the cost of uneducated or under-educated citizens.
Yes, as a citizen of Kansas and the United States, and a stakeholder in the economy, I realize that if we do not invest in our youth and in our workers, we will be sacrificing our own quality of life. Over the past three decades, state and local government expenditures on prisons and jails have increased about three times as fast as spending on elementary and secondary education. At the postsecondary level, the contrast is even starker. From 1989-90 to 2012-13, state and local spending on corrections rose by 89 percent while state and local appropriations for higher education remained flat. This increase in corrections spending has been driven by, among other factors, an increase in the number of people incarcerated in prisons and jails. The United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population but more than 20 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. There are clear links between educational attainment and incarceration. For example, two-thirds of state prison inmates have not completed high school. At the same time, researchers have estimated that a 10 percent increase in high school graduation rates could result in a 9 percent decline in criminal arrest rates.
Kansas spends more than $24,000 a year per inmate, which is the 28th highest in the nation, but still below the national average of $33,849. Add to that the impact of the loss of economic output from those incarcerated citizens, loss of taxes paid, consumer purchases, etc. Some, though not enough, of what is spent on inmates is remedial education and other programs to fix mental health issues, substance abuse, lack of skills, etc.
Kansas school districts spent $13,124 per “full-time equivalent” pupil in school year 2014-15 (latest data available). This number includes all state and federal funds, all local revenues, all retirement costs and all student fee revenue, including student meals, books and other costs. This is the state average. Individual districts may be higher or lower. If we look only at state aid (which would not include federal funding, local property tax revenue or income from student fees), per pupil spending was $8,644 – using the FTE enrollment that does not count all-day kindergarten students and district-paid pre-schoolers. From 2008 to 2015 (latest data available), Kansas funding per pupil increased 4.8 percent, while the national average increased 11.7 percent. Only 11 states had a slower rate of investment in K-12 education per pupil.
So what if we spent more on educating our kids while we have the chance, when they are between 5 years old and 18 years old? What if we bought our students the highest skilled teachers and paid those teachers what they deserve for the crucial job they perform? What if, instead of discussing spending huge amounts of taxpayer funds on a new prison, we made sure that our kids spent their days in state-of-the-art schools with top-notch equipment? I would argue that every dollar spent to prepare every student to succeed to his or her highest potential would save us five dollars or more in the future cost of incarceration, remediation, adult training and health and mental health care. When do you want to invest your tax money? I would vote to spend mine on school-age children and avoid continuing the higher and higher cost of incarcerating and “correcting.”
We know how to do it. Small class sizes help students, especially students that start out needing extra instruction. That means more teachers. Right now we are not producing or retaining enough highly skilled teachers. Our best young minds have so many other places to work where they can make higher salaries and gain more esteem. K-12 and early childhood educators are not lauded and respected like they were when I was younger and educators have been attacked by some policymakers who would malign educators in order to avoid paying the cost of a quality education system. We need to pay teachers enough to keep them in the profession and give them incentives to continue to improve their skills while we encourage young people to choose this critical career.
Let’s make a pledge to do better in Kansas and seize the opportunity to prioritize our school children now. The cost of ignorance is too high.
Marti Crow is a Leavenworth Times columnist.