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The Iowa legislature has spent a lot of time in the past several years discussing the amount of "allowable growth" for funding public education. The Democratic party has been pushing for a 4-8% annual increase, using the argument that it is going to cost money to improve the quality of education. Meanwhile, the Republican party has been pushing for 0-2% annual increase, using the argument that we have increased funding for education in the past and it didn't help, so why throw more money at it.

So what's really going on? Education administrators will point out that the quality of education has increased over time, but not as much as other states. This means that students in Iowa today are quantifiably smarter today than students from 20 years ago, but during that same time, other states have made even more progress than us. This means that our ranking compared to other states has dropped.

This begs the question: what is it that we actually want to fix? Our educational quality rank compared to other states is a metric that some companies use when determining where to find a pool of educated labor, but is otherwise just a meaningless statistic. The quality of education itself is what we want to be the best it can be. If our goal is to improve education, then lets get serious about doing that.

An analogy of the situation: Lets say that you need to move some freight. You hire a guy, we'll call him Bob, to haul the freight. You give Bob $10,000 and tell him to get a truck. Bob takes the $10K and buys the best machine he can, a used pickup truck. A year goes by and you evaluate the situation, finding that Bob didn't haul as much freight as you expected. At this point, the Democratic party says that we should give Bob 10% more money to get a faster truck. The Republican party says that Bob's productivity rate is low, so why give him more money? The appropriate response is that Bob needs a semi truck not a pickup truck.

So what is the solution to education? To improve education, you need to either increase the speed at which knowledge can be imparted in students, or you need to increase the amount of time spent learning, or some combination of the two. The information intake rate is certainly dependent of the teacher and the style of teaching. Thus having more qualified teachers should increase the intake rate. I would guess that a 5% across-the-board increase in learning speed is going to be extremely hard to attain. The other option is to increase the number of hours spent learning. This ultimately means more hours per day, or more days of school. The number of hours of class time per day certainly has a limit, as mental fatigue sets in for students towards the end of the day. I don't know if a 5% increase here is feasible or not. The low hanging fruit in this scenario is the number of days spent in the classroom. This is easy because summer vacation exists. That two month vacation, along with the month before and after, are not very productive in the classroom aspect. As one educator said to me, if you were designing an educational system from scratch, you'd be crazy to shut everything down for two months every year.

Regardless of how you want to do it, improving education is going to cost money. How much do we want to spend on the next generation? Historically, education has been one of the best investments a civilization can make, but the funding has to actually improve education. We can't simply "throw money at it" and hope things improve.

Last updated: November 4, 2013

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