Since 2001, a wealth of information on individual school performance has been available through a website created by the financial ratings firm Standard and Poors (S&P). Called School Evaluation Services (SES), the site provides comparative evaluations of the fiscal, academic and operational performance of Michigan's public schools. The service is unique in that it links academic results with finances and other contextual factors that can influence school performance. The information is available at http://www.ses.standardandpoors.com.

The service has not been without controversy. Defenders of the public school status quo have criticized Michigan’s $3 million annual contract with S&P. Yet this seems a small price (.023 percent of the state budget) to measure what we get for the $13 billion Michigan currently spends per year on public schools, not counting the additional billions in local school millage revenues. Gov. Granholm succumbed to pressure to eliminate the service in her proposed fiscal 2004 budget, but the money was restored by the Legislature.

Here is an example of what can be learned with the site. Let’s say a parent has a child in the Pattengill Middle School in Lansing. With a few clicks of a mouse, she can quickly find that in 2002, Pattengill had a passing rate of 37.2 on the state MEAP test, compared to 51 percent statewide. The school has 14.7 students per teacher. There were three physical assaults by students, compared to a state average of five, and five incidents involving drugs, compared to an average of one elsewhere. Students from economically disadvantaged households make up 64 percent of the student body, compared to 36 percent for the entire state.

Further, the site shows that students in three Lansing charter schools do significantly better on the MEAP test than students at Pattengill. One of these, Mid-Michigan Public School Academy, has an MEAP passing percentage almost one-third greater than Pattengill, even though a higher proportion of its students are from economically disadvantaged households.

Lansing taxpayers can find data on this school that is particularly interesting in light of a $67.5 million millage vote to take place on Nov. 4. The millage contains approximately $28 million to build a new Pattengill. Applying simple arithmetic to the SES data, one finds that the new school will cost some $33,500 per each of its 847 students. This comes to $492,892 per classroom.

Is nearly half a million dollars per classroom a reasonable amount to pay? One way to look at it is to surf over to Lansing’s realty web sites. There you discover that for the same amount, the school district could build or buy each of its 57 classes a separate 3,285-square-foot house, with a nice kitchen, 2½ baths, a whirlpool, and a garage.

The SES site also reveals that the Lansing School District spends $10,184 in operating expenses per student. In the case of Pattengill Middle School, this comes to $149,704 per class of 14.7 students. Imagine if the district actually did build that fancy house for each class. The $149,704 in operating expenses would be enough to pay each teacher $70,000 a year, spend $30,000 on maintenance, overhead and utilities (schools are exempt from property tax), buy each kid a $5 lunch on every school day, and have $33,204 left over for books and supplies. That is certainly enough to provide each student with a laptop computer and everything else needed for a year’s schooling.

School officials will probably argue that such thought experiments are simplistic. Perhaps, but they provide valuable perspective on school spending. S&P’s web site allows the same kind of analysis to be easily done for every school (and every school bond) in the state.

Maybe this is the real reason education officials want to pull the plug on the service.

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Note: Jack McHugh is legislative policy analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.