Betsy Hammond’s Oregonian article “Portland Public Schools spends extra on some students with high needs, buys cheaper education for others” (here) has provoked the following thoughts on the economics of education. I am both trying to simplify and recall college introductory economics, so please forgive mistakes. I offer them as discussion openers.

(1) For any given educational objective, such as high school graduation, there will a hypothetical costs curve. Consider the following cost curve to get ALL students to graduate from high school. To get students to that objective, not all students will cost the same. Some require less support and instruction, some more. In the following chart, I show a possible cost curve for high school graduation. I have shown it as cost per student per year. It could also be shown as total costs (however many years it takes).

(2) I do not know the shape of this curve, so I have shown, as examples in the following light blue and red curves, two other possibilities out of many.

(3) Looking at PPS, there are two basic per student costs: (a) regular students (I’ve guessed $8,000) and (b) students who receive an additional 8% (two 4% allocations).

(4) From Hammond’s article, we know PPS pays an additional $3,500 (SEI) for some students and $17,500 each for others (Alliance High School).

(5) Not ALL students now graduate from PPS high schools. The purple area shows a hypothetical gap between what is now spent and what spending would be required to get to 100% graduation. It is more. And it may need to be spent in very different ways from the rest.

(6) PPS could spend less on some students (and they would still graduate high school). More online offerings for more students could save high school costs for some students, for example.

I do recognize that there can be a tension between funding each student (or some students) to progress as far as possible educationally and funding each student with the minimum to graduate high school. But this lack of clarity causes much funding confusion in PPS.

The PPS Board and administration have a complex, difficult task in appropriating funds. Objectives are neither clear nor consistent. And the cost curve, and all its components, is unknown.

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