Some Issues With Education Spending / by Todd Yarbrough

Perhaps the most oft-used argument against the notion that increased education spending will lead to improved educational outcomes, is that U.S. spending on education has gone up and up and up, and our outcomes have done down and down and down. There is some truth to this narrative; we do spend more money on public education than we used to and yes our global rankings have slipped relative to other countries. But we only recently increased per student funding after several years of decreases, and even so, what actually happens when "education spending rises" is not at all clear cut. Further, even the issue of global rankings deserves scrutiny. Here are four issues we should probably consider when having this debate. 

 

Spending is up, but not everywhere...

1) Spending is up (2009-2013 saw decreases), but that doesn't mean every school/jurisdiction/county/city/state/ saw the same increase. It is important to remember that per student spending reported by the news is an average. If you have a school in a rich jurisdiction, flush with property tax revenue, they are likely to spend more money every year they can, spending revenues on facilities, teacher and admin talent, and technology. They do this because these schools are trying to attract more affluent folks with promise of wonderful educational outcomes. If you have a school in a poor jurisdiction, relying on grants-in-aid from state and federal government because they aren't flush with property tax revenue, then they are bootstrapped and probably only spend more money if they get a bunch of new students (probably because of another school closing). So, what can happen and does, is that rich schools are almost always spending more money while poor schools are probably not very much. When you see that average per student expenditure is up, but poor schools are doing poorly, it's not at all the case that they actually spent more money. 

 

Revenues can be volatile and low spending becomes self-re-enforcing... 

2)  Because the mechanism of revenue generation is typically tied to local property taxes, this ties education spending uniquely to local economic health. If jurisdictions experience flat or negative revenue growth then budgets are strained, retirement contributions are cut, salaries are frozen or cut, positions are cut, sports and music programs are cut, all reducing the incentive for families to move in. Once a jurisdiction experiences a cyclical downturn in revenues, this can permanently alter that school's achievement trajectory. This was one of the biggest No Child Left Behind failures, punishing already bootstrapped schools with austere policies and further lowering the likelihood of achieving national standard goals. Further, any semblance of competitiveness is laughable for these jurisdictions as resource constraints make being competitive harder, not easier. 

 

Educational spending is biased due to years of property market bias...

3) Low-performing jurisdictions have also arisen from systemic economic discrimination. Wealthy and well connected land owners were able to write jurisdictional zoning policy, baking in a lot of discrimination. Cities had red-lining, which quite literally prevented minority populations from moving to and enjoying the educational benefits of high property value jurisdictions. This red-lining had generational impacts, effectively creating the current demographic makeup of jurisdictions. This entrenchment of bias in both property markets and educational outcomes manifests quite visibly again in the expenditure differences between public schools in affluent and poor jurisdictions. This is how you can have schools building college-quality sports and academic facilities with schools across town replete with mold and other terrible conditions. See Detroit versus Grosse Pointe...

 

Global rankings slippage : bellwether and/or inevitable...

4) The U.S. is falling behind other countries' academic outcomes for two likely reasons. 1) We have fundamentally different debates about education than most other countries. While we debate the extent to which religion should be taught in public schools, taking up vast time resources, other countries are debating actual academic issues, such as rigor, scope, and approach. As a result, the U.S. makes significantly different pedagogical choices as it pertains to math and science education, the areas we've been slipping the most in global rankings. The approaches of some European and Asian counties with respect to math and science are clearly something we should consider. 2) Sometimes you fall in rankings simply because others are rising. Over the past 50 years, educational outcomes have been vastly improving in most parts of the world. This means that there are simply more countries even comparable to the U.S. than in years past.  
 

The educational spending debate is seemingly ubiquitous. More nuance on some issues is probably warranted in our policy debate.  


Some info:  

http://www.governing.com/topics/education/gov-education-funding-lawsuits-kansas.html

http://www.governing.com/gov-data/education-data/state-education-spending-per-pupil-data.html

http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/455691468761970993/pdf/wps3162.pdf 

http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/HE/expenditures.pdf

http://fotps.org/sg_userfiles/West_vs_Asia_education_rankings_are_misleading.pdf