Editorial : The cost vs. quality calculation
The debate over health care and health insurance reform has taught us that as good as American medical care is, we spend twice as much for it as other Western nations do, and despite the huge dollars, medical outcomes in the U.S. are not two times better.
The public education of 2,000 or so Vineyard youngsters is very expensive too, at least twice as expensive per pupil as in many other communities in Massachusetts and the nation. Island taxpayers provide funds sufficient to make the per-pupil costs here equal to similar expenditures in the very richest communities in the Commonwealth. By dollar standards - which are certainly not the only standards that should be used to measure the quality of the effort made by the school system, or its efficiency - Vineyard kids get the best that public education can provide.
The seven Island schools that are publicly supported spend more than $40 million annually to educate Vineyard students, not including the taxpayer's share of health insurance premiums for educators in the three down-Island towns. It's expensive, but it's also difficult. In fact, when contrasted with larger mainland school systems, Vineyard public education is a bit unusual, in a couple of respects. For one thing, with the exception of the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, whose services are directed at a self-selected, small - a little more than five percent of the total school enrollment - part of the school age demographic, the school system's overall job is to educate young people with the widest possible range of interests and abilities.
The demographic differences within the Martha's Vineyard range of students extend from those from high-income, highly educated households to those from less exalted circumstances where, in some instances, the push to excel academically is muted. The range includes the college bound and those whose courses lead toward the trades, the hospitality industry, or technical occupations. There are no schools for the arts, or music, or dance, no regional vocational high schools, no Boston Latin Schools here. The schools and the teachers have to make meaningful sense of a variety of learners from a variety of backgrounds, many wholesome and education-minded, many not. It's a tough job, and the Martha's Vineyard school system does it well, we think.
Then, there is the odd fact that while the bottom line - for argument purposes expressed as the per-pupil cost- is huge, the impact on Island resident taxpayers who send children to the schools is moderated because the majority of tax dollars used to pay school bills are contributed by seasonal property owners whose children, if they have children, go to mainland schools. And, these part-time Vineyards are permitted to pay, but not vote. Not to mention the healthy share of tax dollars extracted from former seasonal residents, now retired to their former summer homes, and no longer raising a crop of school age youngsters to clog Vineyard classrooms. So, the big bite becomes a much smaller bite on the year-round Vineyard families who are taxpayers and child rearers. In part, as a result of this unusual but favorable, two-tier pool of taxpayers, the school system and the students have rarely been denied. We've had new schools, new additions, and new programs added during years of national economic recessions, when schools elsewhere in the country were canceling new construction, cutting music and art programs, and asking parents to pay bus and sports fees.
These big dollars, and the big sacrifices that taxpayers among the year-round, less well-heeled community are asked to make entitle us to ask some questions. Are we getting the educational bang we want for these immense bucks? Is the school system efficiently spending the enormous sums it receives? Could we do better with the same amount, or could we do the same with less? MCAS tests are sound, necessary measures of student and, to some extent, teacher and system performance. But, they are hardly sufficient. The assurances of teachers, administrators, and school committee members is comforting, but again, not sufficient. After all, most of them are professionally interested in the quality judgment, and some of them are elected lay volunteers, earnest and tireless but not prepared by training and experience to test outcomes.
For instance, wouldn't we like to know how many Martha's Vineyard Regional High School graduates who enter college complete bachelor degrees? And, how many complete those degrees in four years? Wouldn't we like to know if these students succeeded or were impeded by their college choices? Was there guidance or advice they needed but didn't get? Wouldn't we like to know if special programs for artistically, theatrically, or scientifically minded students ought to be attempted? After all, we have sufficient space, perhaps we should use it differently. Wouldn't we like some professional, experienced outsiders to examine what we do, to gather data which can help to guide our decision making, and to suggest ways to do what we do, but do it better?
The time is long past when the school system, in concert with Island finance committees, should consider subjecting itself to the scrutiny of outside education experts, whose report might both comfort and encourage taxpayers and parents. We spend big dollars. We ought to be spending them wisely. And, we ought to have the benefit of an independent review, to confirm that we are.