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The Dirty, Little Secret in America's Education Wars? Money Matters

Spending more money on schools is what most people really want. Yet what we've been seeing is a 'reform' agenda that emphasizes anything but.

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An interesting twist in the ever-fascinating narrative of Republican politics unfolded in Mississippi this month when political operatives in the campaign to reelect U.S. Senator Thad Cochran to another term attacked their primary challenger for wanting to “deeply cut federal education dollars on which Mississippi schools rely.”

Wait a sec – don’t all Republicans, especially from deep red states in the South, want to deeply cut federal spending? Apparently not, according to what the article identified as, “establishment Republicans” backing the senator, who they say “would protect money for students and teachers.”

The dirty, little secret in America’s education wars is that spending more money on schools is what most people really want – and for good reason, because it really tends to help. Yet what we’ve been seeing in the “reform” agenda that has dominated the debate is an emphasis on anything but.

The conventional wisdom tends to be that asking for more money is a policy cop-out – throwing money at the problem, while the Very Serious People grapple with the ever-more-so weighty topics of Value Added Measures and Adequate Yearly Progress.

Meanwhile, in other sectors, the act of merely spending more money matters a lot to people who are also taken pretty seriously – like the folks at the International Monetary Fund. When the IMF announced its recent decision to downgrade its forecast for U.S. economic growth in the coming year, a significant reason for their decision was because the country had been failing to “boost spending, notably on infrastructure,” according to a report in The Guardian.

So the mere act of spending more money seems to matter a lot in most arenas other than education. But public education has been a significant part of the country’s infrastructure that has been the most neglected.

What Recovery?

Now that the worst damage of the last recession is past us, and most states are experiencing increasing tax revenues – which along with local property taxes fuel most of education funding – one would think public schools would be experiencing somewhat of an upside. Ben Casselman at the FiveThirtyEight news outlet recently analyzed the financial big picture for public education and reached the counterintuitive conclusion that economic recovery was actually “taking a toll on the nation’s public schools.”

Apparently, federal dollars helped mitigate some of the damage of the Great Recession, but that source of spending “fell more than 20 percent from 2010 to 2012, while “state and local funding per student were essentially flat.”

The results are, “adjusting for inflation and growth in student enrollment, spending fell every year from 2010 to 2012, even as costs for health care, pension plans, and special education programs continued to rise faster than inflation.”

Further, the “cuts are increasingly hitting classrooms directly” as money for “instructional expenses … fell faster than overall spending” in 2011-12.

The cutting is generally the deepest for big city schools, Casselman found, and states that historically spend less per student.

Per-student costs for K-12 school now average around $10,600, which is “roughly the 2006 level after adjusting for inflation.” To drive that point home, Casselman quoted Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, who said, “The kids who started kindergarten in fall of 2007, these kids are in sixth grade now. Half of their educational experience in the K-12 system has not been in prerecession funding levels.”

Wait, It Gets Worse

The two issues of funding adequacy and equity Casselman found in his analysis are subjects of further study by Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker in a new paper, “Evaluating the Recession’s Impact on Equity & Adequacy of State School Finance Systems” ( current draft).

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