Follow the Money

The question of whether we spend enough on education in this country never seems to go away. And it’s been even more in the news since John Kerry promised $200 billion more for education over the next 10 years (including $50 billion to help pay for college.) Although that seems like a large figure, it would be but a fraction of the $8 trillion that will be spent on education during the next decade, even without any additional money. That’s right, the latest U.S. Department of Education figures, being used by the Bush campaign to show how fast spending has risen, show that during the 2003-04 year, American public schools spent $501 billion from all sources. (Higher ed costs another $300 billion a year)

Spending has doubled since 1990. Of course, the costs of special education, enrollment growth, inflation and school construction have eaten up a lot of that increase. It’s also interesting to note that the source of the money has shifted, with the federal and local share rising and the state share of spending falling from 43% of the total to 36% during that period. The clamor from educators over spending cuts, and complaints that the federal government isn’t kicking in enough to pay for No Child Left Behind, seem to stem from a recession-related drop in state spending. Last year, for example, the 50 states spent about the same on K-12 education as they did four years earlier. Local dollars, generated by property taxes, and, to a lesser extent, federal aid, more than made up for the losses, however. (See the recent report of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government for a state-by-state breakdown of local and state spending in recent years.)

The public seems to be of two minds about education spending. Although the public thinks more spending is necessary, it also believes that schools are wasteful of much of what they already have. The libertarian Cato Institute, not surprisingly, agrees. Their argument that the feds ought not to fund education at all, however, is off point and would be unpopular. A poll done for the Educational Testing Service by Peter Hart and the late Robert Teeter found that two-thirds of Americans also think more affluent areas should be tapped financially to help solve problems in schools serving the less fortunate—but first they want to know the money will be well-used. The poll also found that Americans resist hard choices when it comes to education spending. When you have districts in affluent areas surrounding New York City spending $20,000 or even more per pupil, with most of that coming from local property taxes that residents vote on, it’s clear some parents (and property owners) think that the more money spent on schools the better. But the fact that some districts want to spend that much shouldn’t set the bar for what constitutes a good education. Boxer Mike Tyson threw away a lot of money, too, without having much to show for it. That doesn’t mean everyone needs tens of millions of dollars and big houses, fast cars and strands of jewels to get by.

On the other hand, it seems to me simplistic to argue, as the Wall Street Journal editorial page did recently, that just because test scores haven’t gone up as a result of spending increases that money is not important or that all of it is being wasted. The increases in spending are not equally distributed. The needs of students are changing, as are social conditions. Also, NCLB asks schools to do something they simply haven’t done before–address the needs of all kids. Even Susan B. Neuman, the former Bush Administration assistant secretary of education, agrees that requires more money. She told the International Reading Association that to say all kids should achieve but not to give them the resources to do so constitutes “a fantasy.” But money is just one resource and some schools use it better than others. And, as University of Southern California professor Larry Picus points out, (Where Does the Money Go? Resource Allocation in Elementary and Secondary Schools, Corwin Press, Lawrence O Picus and James L. Wattenbarger, editors) we don’t have good ways of tracking spending into classrooms to see how it affects students and their learning. Yet, that is the key question. Is the additional spending changing how teachers interact with students around an important body of knowledge? Just having the same teachers teach the same low-level curriculum, yet earn a higher salary for it, does not change that equation. Nor does offering higher entry level salaries, if the recruitment mechanism and hiring standards are exactly the same as before. That’s why it’s welcome news that Mr. Kerry is calling for “new pay systems that reward teachers who excel at improving student achievement.”

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