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School districts in longtime economically stagnant cities like Detroit and Cleveland hemorrhaged the most students, losing 32.1 percent and 17.7 percent, respectively. However, economic stagnation is but one of many reasons for declining student enrollment; factors that also include the collapse of the housing market, declining birthrates, migration from the cities, and increased school violence.
In that latter case, for example, Philadelphia, which saw a 10.2 percent drop in enrollment, reported that over the past five years in Philadelphia’s 268 public schools, 4,000 students, teachers, or other staff members were “beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted, or victims of other violent crimes.”
In Chicago Public Schools, twenty-four students were fatally shot during the 2011-12 school year, with the overall shooting toll at 319, the highest in four years and a nearly 22 percent increase from the previous school year.
Yet, for some school districts, the most compelling reason for student flight was increased competition from charter and private schools. That conclusion was drawn by Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), which saw the third largest student decline of 11.1 percent.
MPS assigned its troubles to Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, a school voucher program for poor and middle-income students that has allowed more than 23,000 students to enroll in private schools in and around Milwaukee.
If MPS is disturbed by this trend, the American public at large surely does not share the district’s unease. “We have record-low confidence in our public schools,” observed Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento. Indeed, Gallup’s annual “Confidence in American Institutions” poll, conducted just last month, revealed that just 29 percent of Americans have confidence in American public schools. This trend is undoubtedly bolstered by the fact that decades of record amounts of money being fed into public school systems have only managed to produce mediocre-to-poor academic results.
Specifically, despite increasing real spending per student on public K-12 education by 23.5 percent over the past decade and by 49 percent over the past 20 years, academic achievement standards, such as reading proficiency and graduation rates, have only marginally improved.
Those meager results have come despite American public school districts nationwide now spending $604.9 billion a year, with an average of $10,499 being spent per student and a pupil/teacher ratio of 15.4, compared to 1970 when the per-pupil expenditures were $4,060 and the pupil/teacher ratio was 22.3.
Yet, in many cities where spending per student exceeds $10,000 per year, graduation rates are horrifyingly well below the national average of 74 percent, such as in Detroit, which spends $11,100 per year, per student, but only 25 percent of its students graduate.
Sadly, that seems like a bargain when compared to the District of Columbia, whose public schools spend nearly $30,000 per pupil yet in return receive a student graduation rate of 60 percent and a student body that has some of the nation’s lowest math and reading scores.
Still, it should be noted that many factors can determine academic performance; in particular, the type of family a child comes from, including those families where an ethos of education, discipline, hard work and other such values are regularly instilled.
However, public school advocates, in particular those in teachers unions, have long insisted, despite evidence to the contrary, that spending is the best predictor of educational performance. Of course, this is not unrelated to the fact that an ever increasing amount of the funding winds up in the pocketbooks of teachers and administrators.
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