The world of American education is replete with catchphrases. Even those outside the education establishment have probably heard, “If you can read this, thank a teacher” or “Build schools now or build prisons later.” One catchphrase that got some traction at the end of the Cold War was: “It will be a great day in America when the schools have all the money they need, and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”
The intent is to convince taxpayers that public schools deserve more of your money.
Getting Less for More
This conclusion appeared as no surprise in a recent editorial in The Washington Post titled, “The One Education Reform that Would Really Help? Giving Public Schools More Money.” The author was predictably an educrat – the dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Education.
The online version of that article corrected an earlier print version, which had “stated that, adjusting for constant dollars, public funding for schools had decreased since the late 1980s.” The editors noted that “in fact, funding at the federal, state and local levels has increased between the 1980s and 2019.”
Increased funding notwithstanding, the deteriorating quality of American education is apparent. Azadeh Aalai, assistant professor of psychology at New York’s Queensborough Community College, put it directly in a Psychology Today article. “I am about a decade in to my teaching career, but even within this fairly short span, I have noticed a startling decline in the quality of written work turned in by my students… As a psychology professor, I am starting to feel like an English instructor, because so much of my feedback on these papers is focusing on such basic writing skills.”
Indeed, Americans are spending more on education while the quality of that education declines. How can this be?
An Unworkable Ideology
First, neither schools nor society at large promotes the benefits of hard work. The prevailing ideology of progressive education is that of the disciples of John Dewey, who promote effortless learning. These progressives abandon lectures and memorization, which require students to pay attention and work. They demand less rigorous group work and more lessons designed to be “interesting.”
San Diego State University psychologist, Dr. Jean M. Twenge summarized the situation. “Compared to previous generations, recent high school graduates are more likely to want lots of money and nice things, but less likely to say they’re willing to work hard to earn them.” Dr. Twenge suggests that some fault may lie in advertising that promotes materialism, but seldom mentions the costs of its supporting lifestyles.
However, the fault also lies with a progressive educational ideology that tells students that they do not need to work to gain an education – or the good things that come from learning.
Another reason for increased spending and less learning is that school systems tend to enlarge already bloated administrative structures. The nature of all bureaucracies is to expand.
The school system of Harford County, Maryland, is typical. The county has a mix of areas including an urban area within a few minutes’ drive of Baltimore, a large and prosperous “bedroom community,” and regions that are primarily rural. The Harford County Public Schools spent $485 million to operate fifty-two schools with 38,610 students, spending an average of a little over $12,500 per student.
That amount might seem sufficient or even lavish. Unfortunately, far too much of the budget is absorbed by administrators who spend relatively little time in schools and almost no time with students. The list of such personnel has ninety-six people who sport titles like “Manager of Innovative Partnerships,” “Enterprise Infrastructure and Operations Team Leader,” and “Supervisor of Accountability.”
Most of these positions allow for at least one “administrative assistant” (they used to be called secretaries). Costs balloon still further when adding the expenses of providing office space, fringe benefits and transportation allowances.
Every school system needs a superintendent, purchasing agent and payroll manager. However, the students’ educations would hardly suffer for the lack of “innovative partnerships.”
Are There Solutions?
Other problems contribute to the ever-growing costs of education. Many textbooks, for example, cost well over $100 each yet fall apart after a couple of years. Every school has “students,” whose only educational goal is to disrupt as many classes as possible. Many parents are unwilling to accept that their child can do anything wrong. Some teachers quit teaching a decade before they retire.
Money solves none of these problems. It is time to abandon the idea that more money equals better education. Taxpayers have the right to expect that the school systems spend their involuntary sacrifices effectively. Parents should be able to see that their children get the knowledge (and moral character) that they need. Teachers should be able to teach their students without interference from those who know little about their problems. Students deserve a better return for the twelve (or more) years that they spend in school. Having the right educational principles is much more important than having a big budget.