New Jersey School Stats Stir the Pot

The New Jersey Department of Education decided to revamp the way it reports both inputs and outcomes for the state’s public schools. The new “school performance reports” compare demographically similar schools, rather than just those in the same geographic area. This has generated complaints from some districts that don’t agree with their peer group assignment.

The state will now also report total per-pupil spending, rather than just current per-pupil spending. The former includes transportation, debt service and capital outlays. This is also meeting some resistance.

It’s good to simplify when possible, but there’s a tendency to simplify down to inaccuracy. Current per-pupil spending is an important statistic because it reflects what we spend specifically on students in school now. But we can’t continue to pretend that loan interest and school renovations aren’t real expenditures, so total spending is important, too.

To be sure, “per-pupil spending” is itself problematic. It gives the impression that each student is allocated a specific amount for his or her schooling, and completely ignores marginal costs in the education system.

If we’re going to tax citizens to pay for this stuff, we should tax their attention spans a bit and report both figures, explaining the difference between the two. That way, you can choose one or the other, but at least you would know what it was you were discarding.