Money Matters!

Last week’s TIME column about the prospects for school spending occasioned some interesting responses.  A common one, though, was the idea that the public is just clamoring to spend more on schools.  You hear this a lot.  Unfortunately, there are three problems with this argument:

Structural: The money just isn’t there (and annual increases are largely spoken for).   The current trajectory of spending is simply not sustainable unless we’re prepared to made radical changes in policies, for example, affecting health care, senior citizens, or prisons.  Whether or not we should make those changes is debatable.  In many states all senior citizens get a break on property taxes, which are a key revenue source for schools.  As the population ages this will ripple through public education budgets.  Should these measures be means-tested for ability to pay?  Perhaps.  Given how politics works are they likely to be?  Doubtful.  Likewise, our correctional policies are a mess but most politicians are not lining up to fix them.  So sure, today’s fiscal choices are just that, choices, but the implications of those decisions and prospects for change must be considered with an eye toward political and other realities realities.  A second, related, structural constraint is how little discretionary money there is annually because of how much is tacked down for ongoing obligations.   In practice this means that there are annual increases (excepting the last few years where in some places you’ve seen genuine reductions), which consume new money.

Experiential: Despite what people tell pollsters about spending when it becomes time to act they behave differently.  Many of these people who apparently can’t wait to spend more on schools often forget that when it comes time to vote for school bonds, levies, or other taxes. You have the outlier examples.  For instance Stand for Children* was instrumental in helping raise revenue through a referendum in Oregon in the midst of the recession.   But those examples are the exception not the rule.   Besides, you have an incredible array of interest groups advocating for more money for schools so if the public really wants it, too, we’d be seeing more action, no?  That’s a disconnect that tells you something about how politicians (most of whom are vote maximizing creatures) view the actual public mood relative to tax increases or spending trade-offs.

Informational: To the extent the public wants more spending on schools, it’s unclear they actually know what they’re talking about in the first place.  When William Howell and Marty West probed  not only opinions about spending but also knowledge about the issue they found that, “Americans dramatically underestimate the amount spent on the public schools in their district, even when prompted to consider the full range of uses to which school spending is devoted. They also think that teachers earn, on average, far less than is actually the case. The public’s strong preference that more be spent on public schools is based, at least in part, on faulty information.” Howell and West also found that views change when the public learns the facts about spending.

Viewed collectively these issues, which in practice interact with each other in the policy and political discussion about education spending in the states and in Washington, it’s not surprising that the spending picture looks the way it does.  This is another one of those education issues where one can spend a lot of time bitching about the rain or can spend time and energy making sure there are enough umbrellas.   In education, though, we’re generally predisposed to do the former.

*Bellwether works with SFC.

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