Good news! I’m going to lend you my pickup truck for as long as you’d like to use it!

There are a few catches, though.

First, you’ll have to pay me whether you drive it or not. Refuse and you’ll be thrown in jail. You can buy a car of your own, if you like — hey, it’s still a free country! — but don’t expect me to stop billing you for my truck if you do.

Second, expect to pay me about 50 percent above the going rental rate. It may sound like highway robbery to you, but trust me, I know I’m worth it.

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Finally, I refuse to rent you any other type of vehicle for the money you’re paying me, even if my truck doesn’t suit your family’s needs. Oh, and did I mention that I’m lobbying legislators to force an increase in your rental payments every year?

Welcome to Michigan public schooling.

Roughly 12,500 teachers and parents rallied in Lansing last month in support of automatic increases in public school spending. The legislative proposals in question, Senate Bill 246 and House Bill 4582, would require the Michigan Legislature to annually increase its public school appropriation by a minimum of either 5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less (bigger increases would be OK, too). The bills do not take the state’s overall primary, secondary and postsecondary student population into account, so taxpayers would have to spend more money even if the system were educating fewer pupils.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on this demand and the context in which it is being made.

Contrary to the popular misconception promoted by school employee unions, public schools in Michigan are not underfunded. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the state’s average per-pupil expenditure during the 2002-2003 school year was more than $10,000.[1] That’s about one-quarter of a million dollars per classroom. It’s also thousands of dollars more than most private schools charge in tuition — more than double in some cases.

For instance, total per-pupil spending in the Ann Arbor Public Schools was over $12,500 in the 2003-2004 school year.[2] The city also has numerous religious schools charging tuitions that usually fall between $3,000 and $7,000 (and this includes the higher tuitions charged to out-of-parish students). The city’s nonsectarian private schools mostly charge tuitions in the $6,000 to $10,000 range.

It is true, of course, that the most elite prep schools charge higher fees. Greenhills School is perhaps Ann Arbor’s priciest option, with a 2004-2005 tuition of $14,760. In other words, the average per-pupil expenditure of the city’s public schools is only about $2,000 below the tuition of one of the most expensive private schools in town. While Greenhills does receive donations from alumni to supplement its tuition income, much of that money goes to financial assistance for families with limited means. More than one out of every six students at the school receives financial aid to help defray the cost of tuition, and the average award is nearly $9,000.

Part of the difference in cost between Greenhills and the public school district is accounted for by differences in facilities. Among other things, Greenhills School sits on a 30-acre wooded campus with a stream and a nature preserve — not something that the average Ann Arbor public school is offering. Greenhills also has a 9-to-1 student-teacher ratio and an average class size of 15. It’s difficult to compare educational quality given that Greenhills students probably come from more advantaged families, but virtually all of the school’s students go on to college.

Of course, the liberal arts focus of Greenhills might not be the best thing for your children or grandchildren. Perhaps you’d prefer a more pervasively religious educational environment. If Michigan had an education funding program that helped all families get into the schools of their choosing, parents would be able to pick the school best suited to their kids, instead of being forced to pay for a rigid, expensive education monopoly that simply may not deliver the sort of services they want and need.

When it comes to buying or leasing a car, we have a lot of choices, and competition discourages any one manufacturer from charging inflated prices. The profit motive ensures that automakers are always looking for ways to make their vehicles more attractive, from side-curtain airbags to 150-channel satellite radios.

Why do we expect so much less from our schools?


Andrew J. Coulson is senior fellow in education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

[1] The National Center for Education Statistics records that the state’s total primary and secondary public school expenditures were $17,954,395,000 in 2002-03, while the system enrolled 1,785,908 students in that year.

[2] The official June 2004 independent auditor’s report (PDF format) puts total district expenditures at $207,660,187, while enrollment was 16,554 (according to the 2003-04 district budget document; PDF format).