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Waiting for Superman - Misperceptions about American Schools

I was recently asked to participate in a panel discussion with the head of the San Diego teacher's Union and SD school board president after a screening of a new documentary about US government run schools called Waiting for Superman. The movie is a moving portrayal of a dysfunctional education system where children are the victims and teachers and administrators are the winners. While preparing for the event I was shocked to hear the head of the teacher's union and school board president repeatedly tell reporters from TV, radio and newspapers that 'taxpayers are not committed to education' and quote wrong numbers which are easily debunked simply by using numbers from the school districts own web site.

These misperceptions are part of a calculated campaign to disguise actual spending on government schools in an attempt to garner continually greater spending on education by taxpayers so those represented by the teachers union can get higher pay. Whether you think schools should get more money or not, I think we can all agree that we should be informed about the facts. Some of the data below is related to San Diego city schools but my research shows it's similar to other school districts.

You can listen to my comments about how schools can be fixed then, you can watch the rest of the recordings from "Panel Talks About Education in San Diego" here.

Common Misperceptions About San Diego Unified School District

Myth: Education spending is reduced every year requiring large cuts that are hurting education and there's nothing left to cut.

Facts: There has been no major cuts in total revenues to SDUSD over the last 8 years. The numbers have remained fairly steady. (Source: 1)

2002-03 - $1.15 Billion 2006-07 - $1.22 B
2003-04 - $1.06 B 2007-08 - $1.18 B
2004-05 - $1.07 B 2008-09 - $1.19 B
2005-06 - $1.11 B

Myth: Next year's budget is dramatically reduced requiring large cuts.

Facts: According to the school board President next year's budget will be $1.2 Billion which is similar in size to the budget the last few years. (Source: 3)

Myth: Spending per student in San Diego is continually declining illustrating a lack of commitment to education.

Facts: If you look at school spending and divide that by average daily attendance you see the total per student spending is more than $10,000. If one includes in the analysis total costs including capital expenditures and pensions then the per student spending would be even higher. Over the 7 year period examined below per student spending rose more than 33% or 15.5% after accounting for inflation. (Source: 1, 3)

Myth: There are too few teachers so classroom size is growing to 35 and sometimes 40.

Facts: There are more than 7,000 certified teachers in SDUSD. Latest enrollment numbers are 131,541. Dividing those 2 numbers results in 18.8 students per teacher. If reduced classroom size were a goal of the administration there are ample teachers employed by SDUSD to achieve this, but too few teachers are engaging in actual instructional duties.

Myth: Giving more money to schools means more will be spent in the classroom.

Facts: Statewide total K-12 spending increased by $10 billion over the five-year period 2004-2009, from $45.6 billion to $55.6 billion. It rose at a rate greater than the increase in inflation or personal income. Yet classroom spending dipped from 59 percent of education funding to 57.8 percent and spending on teacher salaries and benefits dropped from 50 percent of statewide spending to 48 percent over the same period. Spending on administrators and supervisors, staff travel and conferences all increased faster than teachers' pay. (Source: 5)

Myth: More money to schools will mean better results for students.

Facts: Over the last 40 years the cost of a K-12 education at government operated schools has tripled and now exceeds $150,000 per student yet there has been no increase whatsoever in test scores. There's no data to suggest that spending even more money would produce different results. (See chart below.)

Myth: District administration is slimming down.

Facts: Employee growth at government schools has grown 10 times faster than enrollment over the last 40 years. SDUSD has considerably more non-teachers than teachers on their payroll. Approximately 16,000 employees of which 7,000 are certified teachers.

Conclusion: These misperceptions are part of a campaign to disguise actual spending on government schools in an attempt to garner continually greater spending on education by taxpayers.


  1. Center for Education Policy and Law, San Diego Unified School District Status Report: 2003-2009
  2. San Diego Unified School District, About Us,
  3. San Diego Union Tribune,
  4. Cato Institute,
  5. Davenport Institute, Pepperdine University, An Analysis of K-12 Education Expenditures in California,


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