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Your Schools: Value of education for the economy and more

A friend in Minnesota recently sent me an interesting article about a book titled, "Quantifying the Successes of Public Schools," by Michael Walden and James Merrill.

As our district awaits the results of the new school report card being issued by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction next week, which will "grade" our schools on student achievement, student growth, closing gaps, and on-track-to-graduate and post-secondary readiness, I thought it might be timely to share some thoughts from Walden and Merrill in this week's column about the value of our schools to the community.

Often we think of our schools more in terms of how much public education costs rather than how much it contributes to prosperity. That's especially true in hard economic times.

In reality, however, our public investment in education significantly influences our future economic success as a community, state, and nation.

For example, business experts tell us that the return on the investment in early childhood education is between $8 and $16 for each $1 invested, depending on the quality of the program and the specific children attending the program.

Having spent time in each of our six new district RF4C (River Falls 4 Children) preschool sites in recent weeks, I am so proud that our school board, staff, preschool providers, and community have made this investment in 4-year olds who are now getting a great head start on their future success in learning.

There's much more to the investment in lifelong education.

According to the article, a high school graduate is likely to earn about $7,000 more per year than a non-graduate, and a person with a college baccalaureate degree will earn an average of $21,000 more annually than a high school graduate.

That's why we have a renewed focus on career and college readiness in our high school, and why we are working to adjust course offerings, teaching approaches, and schedules to accommodate all learners.

The State of Wisconsin ranks #1 in the nation in high school graduation at 89.9 percent of all students, and the School District of River Falls far exceeds that national ranking with 97-98 percent of all our students graduating every year.

James Merrill, who is superintendent of the Virginia Beach City Public Schools in Virginia, quantified the value of public education in his home district by hiring an economist to develop approximate monetary values of his school outcomes.

The purpose of his effort was to determine 1) the economic value of degrees awarded by public schools, 2) the reduction of future public costs associated with graduates of public schools, and 3) the economic impact on local wealth of successful public schools.

Merrill's findings for his large district, while much broader in scope than ours, showed:

n Increased property values of between $2.8 and $9.5 billion in part attributed to a good school system

n Increased lifetime earnings of each graduation class of $800 to $900 million as a result of earning a high school diploma

n Reduction in public crime and public health costs of between $260 and $280 million when compared with those who do not complete high school

n Increased local wealth, where every $1 spent in the school district's operating budget resulted in another 53 cents spent in the regional economy, and for every $1 spent for the capital budget, 55 cents was spent in the regional economy

n Increased local employment, where every $1 million spent in the capital budget for improving facilities resulted in 12.6 regional jobs

My friend who passed the article along to me concluded her thoughts by saying, "Although funding for education is less about dollars and cents than it is about our students and our futures, it is significant to note that the monetary return on our investment is as real as the human return."

While I won't hire an economist to confirm our district's value, I am certain that the School District of River Falls quantifiably contributes to the financial and overall betterment of this community.

Like Merrill's efforts to quantify the results of his Virginia school district's efforts with students, the new Wisconsin report card will attempt to quantify our work with student achievement in schools all across our state.

While I'm pretty sure our schools will do ok on the report cards, I confess to being a little skeptical about quantifying something as intangible and qualitative as student learning that goes beyond test scores.

Perhaps my experiences in Minnesota left me a little jaded about the intentions of those wanting to compare schools via "report cards-on-a-stick" issued at the Minnesota State Fair.

However, the Wisconsin version of the report card effort has received more careful thought from the DPI and is attempting to provide a broader view of our district's successes and challenges to address.

That information should prove valuable to us in the district and the community, since the River Falls Public Schools are truly "Everybody's Business!"