“It is better to build schools now than to build prisons later.”
The old progressive maxim offers some comforting logic. Someone without a good education is likely to fail. A certain percentage of those will turn to crime and end up in prison.
Thus, everyone supports education. Both liberal and conservative politicians can win applause by urging better schools.
Liberals have learned to blame everything that is wrong with society on a lack of education funding. Consider these statements made by presidential hopefuls during the recent campaign.
Over the past decade, states all over America have made savage cuts to education, while, at the same time, providing massive tax breaks to the wealthiest people and largest corporations in America. Our kids and our students are too important to cut back on education, especially when those cuts reduce educational opportunities for underserved students, students of color, low-income students, LGBTQ students and students with disabilities.
— Bernie Sanders, “A Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education”
“We’ve gotta use our federal education laws to help supplement so we can get real money into our public schools K–12. It’s absolutely critical. These are our children.”
— Elizabeth Warren, speech, March 20, 2019
Left unsaid in these statements is that some portion of any new education spending will end up in the hands of the two major teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Both organizations funnel serious money into political campaigns – always favoring the left.
Conservatives see schools as a component of “the American Dream.” They like the idea that poverty (and expensive welfare programs) can be greatly diminished if schools do their job well.
Conservative office-holders also use education issues to prove that they can be “compassionate” just like their opponents. Liberals love to paint conservatives as heartless and uncaring. In the media’s narrative, the conservatives are the modern embodiment of Charles Dickens’s “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner,” Ebenezer Scrooge. Spending on education gives conservatives a chance to say, “We are not bad people. Schools are simply a better way to lower poverty than welfare payments.”
However, this hope lures conservatives into a trap. Robert Pondicio of the Fordham Institute describes the ambush. “Indeed, there is no small amount of frustration, particularly on the right, that a movement once dedicated to the (perhaps naive) idea that education was the cure for poverty, has morphed over time into a wholly-owned subsidiary of Social Justice, Inc. These days, ed reformers seem more concerned with combatting institutional racism and dismantling white supremacy, and focusing their energies on housing, segregation, policing, and immigration, than on teaching kids to read.”
A Common Disappointment
Ironically, both liberals and conservatives are disappointed by the results of increased education spending. Both supported increased school funding with the hope that it would help mend a broken society. According to government statistics, schools spent an average of $751 per student per year in 1969-1970. By 2015-16, that figure had ballooned to $11,841.
Inflation had a role to play in these figures. A more accurate picture emerges when the amounts are adjusted to the value of a dollar in 2018:
1969-70 —- $4,934
1989-90 —- $9,073
1999-2000 – $10,131
2015-16 —- $12,330 (most recent available figures)
Thus, when adjusted for inflation, the schools still spend two and a half times more per student than they did fifty years ago. Yet, few people would argue that the schools are two and a half times better.
Who Took the People’s Money?
Thus, one must ask, where has all that money gone?
Staff increases – According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 45.5 million students in America’s elementary and secondary schools in 1970 and 49.3 million in 2010, an increase of about nine percent. The Fordham Institute study, The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don’t Teach, reports that the staff of those schools nearly doubled, from 3.3 million to 6.2 million over the same period.
How did this happen? According to Chester Finn, Fordham Institute’s President at the time of the study, the culprit was the tendencies of bureaucracies to grow over time. “Our sense is that these millions of people have quietly accumulated over the years as districts simply added employees in response to sundry needs, demands, and pressures—including state and federal mandates and funding streams—without carefully examining the decisions they were making or considering possible tradeoffs and alternatives. This was the path of least resistance and, at a time of rising budgets, was viable even if imprudent.”
Benjamin Scafidi came to similar conclusions in his study, Back to the Staffing Surge. He reports that total students increased by 19 percent between 1992 and 2014. At the same time, the number of teachers increased by 28 percent and the number of “all other staff” by 45 percent.
Testing – Both Presidents Bush (the younger) and Obama oversaw vast attempts to reform education. The Bush administration called their program “No Child Left Behind.” The Obama initiative was titled “Race to the Top.” Both programs mandated extensive standardized testing for every student.
Testing is expensive. Huff Post quotes Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution, who estimated that school districts spent $1.7 billion on these tests.
However, that figure only covers the fees paid to the companies that write and score the tests. It does not include the salaries of teachers, counselors, and administrators who are taken away from their regular duties to supervise and proctor the tests. It also fails to consider the classroom hours used to train students in the idiosyncrasies of the various tests. Those costs will never be calculated accurately since school bureaucrats don’t want to know the answer.
Curriculum Development – Another uncalculated cost is purchasing revised curricula and then training teachers to implement them. The recent, and much-despised “Common Core” is only one of these supposed panaceas. The world of education is especially susceptible to the promises of new solutions to “raise student achievement.” Each comes with the hope that students will learn more if the material is reorganized or taught in a more “engaging” fashion. Many of these programs also feature the latest in expensive technology. The results are both costly and disappointing.
Some years ago, many schools distributed a bumper sticker to each teacher. It read, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” In the case of higher education costs and stagnant results, the taxpayer has lost on both ends of that deal.