Public Assets Institute > Policy Areas > Education > Is Vermont’s declining student enrollment driving up costs?

Is Vermont’s declining student enrollment driving up costs?

No.   Declining enrollment doesn’t drive up costs. It’s true that Vermont’s student enrollment has been declining at a rate of about 1 percent per year.  But, school costs have also been declining for the past two years.

If you listen to some who are weighing in on Vermont’s school spending lately, you’d think that a lower student count is causing increased spending.  In fact, VTDigger fell prey to this fallacy in a headline today about the newly released study of Vermont’s public education system.

Here’s the problem.  Some people are focused on spending per pupil when they talk about school costs.  As the number of students in school goes down, the spending per pupil goes up.  But increased spending per pupil doesn’t mean higher school costs.

Consider this:

If a couple with two children earns $50,000 a year and spends $12,000 for housing (mortgage, insurance, and taxes) you could say that the family is spending $3,000 per person for housing.

When the two children leave home to make lives for themselves, if the couple still makes $50,000 and their housing costs have stayed the same, their per-person cost will have doubled—now $6,000 per person—even though they’re not spending a dime more on housing.   The new situation with fewer people in the household is just as affordable after the children left as it was before. The couple may consider moving to a smaller house to save money.  But wanting to save money is not the same as having unaffordable cost increases.

The fuss about Vermont’s increased spending per pupil is confusing Vermonters into thinking that our public education system is unaffordable.  In fact, it’s as affordable now as it has been for the past two decades.

Let’s hope our policy makers don’t make the mistake of rushing to cut costs even when they aren’t rising, and leaving our children to face the consequences.

Posted by Paul Cillo on January 5, 2012 at 6:32 pm

8 Responses to “Is Vermont’s declining student enrollment driving up costs?”

  1. Elizabeth Golden-Pidgeon says:

    This article misses the point. The fact is that declining enrollment means that fewer students are being educated within the same infrastructure (building, buses, teacher salaries, principal salary, maintenance, lighting, heating, etc.) Therefore, cost per pupil goes up, even though no additional services are given to the remaining children. We need to consolidate our infrastructure, that is, close down some school buildings and bring children from several area schools into one central school, to keep costs from increasing as enrollment declines.

    In addition, we need to encourage appropriate residential and commercial development in our towns in order to bring in tax revenues to help pay for our school costs.

  2. David T. Gross says:

    Aside from the argument that one usually gets what one pays for, Ms. Golden-Pidgeon’s comment neglects the fact that we are not discussing a commodity, but rather this is a discussion about a community’s children. Yes, it often makes economic sense to combine two small schools into one larger one when they are reasonably proximal to each other. However, we have already done this in Vermont. Some would argue that we have combined student populations over too great an area in some school districts, resulting in morning and afternoon bus rides that well exceed an hour. Who wishes to make the argument that these children have two to three hours of spare time to waste on a bumpy, noisey commute to and from school each day? (And please don’t tell me that they could be doing their homework unless you have attempted this feat recently yourself!)

    The proponents of school consolidation appear to ignore the fact that we will face future increased fuel costs. What we will do when the cost of bussing students gets too high? Will we rebuild our community schools, or more likely, announce a reduction in bus service? (Too bad if your parents’ jobs are in the opposite direction of the consolidated school.)

    And what about our Vermont winter weather? I have yet to hear a discussion of what affect these increased travel distances will have on a school administrator’s decision making process when pondering if and when to have delayed openings, early dismissals, or closings. Any disruption in the school’s routine disrupts learning, and this reduces Vermont’s “return on investment” in education.

    Now, if one still argues that education costs must be reduced, I have a suggestion. Let’s examine how much money and time, (both student and staff), is spent each year on standardized testing. Are we getting a good return on THIS investment? I, for one, can’t tell because I have yet to see any statewide figures for testing’s total costs. Can anyone give me these numbers?!

  3. Willem Post says:

    In Europe, cost per student per year are about half of US costs and they have better outcomes.

  4. Elizabeth Golden-Pidgeon says:

    In response to David Gross’ comment, I would add that there are many areas of the state where consolidation could be accomplished easily – where several small towns in close proximity could share one facility. In the case of my neighborhood, the route most people take to work passes through several of these towns, and the bus routes even overlap each other. Most of Vermont is made up of small towns in close proximity. In addition, children in middle school and high school already ride buses through several towns to get to the central middle and high schools. In the case of my neighborhood, seven schools funnel into the are high school. This is also common in most areas of Vermont. The buses are already taking routes through adjacent, and they aren’t full. Therefore, there wouldn’t be any additional fuel costs.

  5. Dan Fleming says:

    It occurs to me that the per student education costs are a reasonable, perhaps not the only, way to measure what is going on in education cost trends. Taken to the extreme, the argument put forward by PAI leads to today’s costly system being held in place to the last student – patently absurd. The concern in a declining student population should be to reduce costs, especially overhead costs(those costs not directly associated with delivering education). Further, educators should always be seeking better and more efficient methods, regardless of student population. Anything less is irresponsible to the taxpayers.

  6. Paul Cillo says:

    We certainly agree that cost per pupil is a useful measure in managing school costs. And we support the idea that school taxes are based on spending per pupil, which builds accountability into the system. We would argue, however, that the higher cost per pupil that results from a lower student count does not create an affordability crisis for Vermonters. The system is actually more affordable today than it was two years ago since the system costs less to operate today than it did two years ago. A lower student count, however, does create opportunities. One opportunity, as others have mentioned in this string, is to cut costs even further. Some think that consolidation is a way to do that, but there is little evidence to support that view. Another opportunity is to think of our schools as having capacity for more students. Is there a way we can use that capacity to create a Vermont society for the future that is more of what we want? Vermont’s pre-K-12 outcomes rank among the best in the country. Instead of shrinking our system, maybe we would be better serving our children by thinking about how to bring more children to Vermont to take advantage of the superior education we provide.

  7. Jean Rosenberg says:

    European school costs as reported, including per
    pupil school costs, are lower than ours, but they cannot be directly compared. For example, American school costs include health insurance for all the staff, a tidy sum that grows faster than inflation, while European school costs do not, since all health insurance is paid for outside of the school budgets. Also, in general European schools do not have or include the same transportation costs that American, and especially Vermont schools do, since Europeans have better public transportation and live more closely together. These two factors alone contribute very significantly to American school costs and make direct comparisons with European costs unusable.

  8. Pat Robins says:

    Former commissioner Cate had the right idea in proposing a single board for each supervisory district managing a ‘global budget’ for that district, forcing a rational portioning out of the available resources. e.g.if there’s to be all day kindergarten, all schools in the district will have it, school consolidations would have to meet the interests of all in the district,etc. The ‘local control’ folks torpedoed the idea.