Do Americans “Throw Money” At Their Schools? A Fair Funding Primer

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“Don’t throw money at schools.”

It’s a common rejoinder when lobbying for an increase in public education budgets.

You offer facts why schools need it: both the state and federal government continue to reduce K-12 funds, class sizes are increasing, the curriculum is being narrowed, buildings are crumbling – real world consequences to spending deficits.

And some guy (it’s often a dude) stands up with a cock-eyed grin and says, “You know, we really need to stop throwing money at schools.”

And he pauses as if we all need a moment to take that in.

Is there anything to this? We hear it often enough, but does he have a point?

Let’s see.

“Don’t throw money at schools.”

First, is it true? Is anyone actually throwing money at our schools?

I’ve worked as a public school teacher for over a decade. To my great disappointment never once has anyone hurled greenbacks through a window in my building. I have never had to dodge, duck or otherwise exercise gymnastics to avoid being thunked in the head by a stack of airborne bills.

Origami ninja stars made out of $100 notes do not routinely fly through the air in my classroom. No government representative has ever shown up in the auditorium during a professional development and said, “Yeah baby! Let’s make it rain!” before showering my coworkers and myself in Benjamin’s.

No. This has never happened. Not even coins. More change is thrown at the fountain in my local mall than at any public school where I’ve ever worked.

At this point, you’re probably saying, but, Steven, that’s not what this guy meant. He wasn’t implying someone literally tossed bills at foundations of learning. He was just being colorful.

To which I respond: was he? Because there are lots of ways to phrase that idea. He simply could have said, “We shouldn’t increase education funding.”

He could have said, “We need to spend school money more wisely before increasing it.”

He could have said, “Additional learning revenues are a waste because schools do such a bad job.”

He could have said, “We spend too much on education already.”

He could have said, “Kids don’t deserve more of my cash.”

But he didn’t say any of those things. Instead he conjured an image out of a Roman orgy or a rap video. He purposefully tried to frame this as a ridiculous situation. He wasn’t just trying to make an argument. He wanted to paint anyone who could possibly disagree with him as a fool.

“Can you believe these guys crying about public school funding?” he implied. “They’re having money thrown at them and they actually want more!?”

So before we even start to study the content of his phrase, we must remember it’s coated in bias and malicious intent. He is not really calling for a rational argument. He is appealing to emotions – most probably the emotions of those listening to the debate.

But we cannot sink to his level. We need reasons.

This is difficult because it’s not entirely clear what exactly he was getting at. Let’s examine what his statement might mean in plain English and try to determine if – underneath all this spin – he has a point or not.

Here are some possibilities.

1) “We need to spend education money more wisely before increasing it.”

This might be what he intended to say. And if so, he does have a bit of a point.

There is a problem with how school funding is spent. There is waste and misappropriation. At the local level, school boards and administrators do not always do things in the most efficient manner. But you could say the same thing at every level of democratic government. Fascist states have much less waste. Shall we just burn up the Constitution, then?

At the state and federal level, the problem is compounded by the ignorance of those allowed to write our laws. Education policy is rarely made by those who know what they’re talking about, thus funding often is wasted on useless initiatives. Common Core, standardized testing, punitive accountability systems – these were all created by business interests without regard to educational validity or efficacy and – as such – waste taxpayer money that could be better spent on things that would actually help children learn.

And speaking of waste, may I introduce you to charter schools? Favored by lawmakers yet rocked by fiscal scandals, charters are legal means of sucking up tax dollars for a profit. While public schools have to account for every penny spent and prove funds went to better the educations of real live students, charters are not just permitted but encouraged to withhold some tax money from going to student services and instead bolstering administrators’ bank accounts. Anyone who speaks of fiscal accountability in education yet is in favor of its further privatization is either disingenuous or in need of a basic math course!

The solution, however, is not to withhold additional funding. The solution is more oversight. And I don’t mean only government oversight and regulations. I mean oversight by the public.

Democracy only works if people participate. People need to push for transparency and less wasteful policies. They need to educate themselves about what’s going on. They need to investigate. They need to lobby, protest, and criticize. They need to vote. And they need a free and interested media to give them the facts to make smart decisions.

Clearly we’re lacking some of these things today. But that’s a national problem not limited to education funding.

In the meantime, we can’t wait for a perfect government before increasing school spending. Our children need help now!

If we do nothing, we doom another generation to getting less than they deserve, less than what we could have provided. Why? Because we were afraid some of it wouldn’t reach them!?

A deep sea diver with a kink in his air hose, doesn’t shrug and turn off his oxygen. He turns it up!

2) “Additional learning revenues are a waste because schools do such a bad job.”

This might have been his criticism. Let’s look at the facts.

International comparisons of national school systems are all the rage in political circles. And raw data suggests that children from the United States are not at the top. We are somewhere in the middle.

That’s all true. But what pundits refrain from admitting is that it’s been true for a long time – in fact, for as long as we’ve been making these types of comparisons. Our schools have not gotten worse. They have stayed the same.

This brings up an important issue. How does one compare national school systems to each other, anyway? What do we use to make these comparisons? Income prospects? Student portfolios? Measures of critical thinking? Classroom grades?

No. We use standardized test scores – the PISA test to be exact.

However, we’ve known for decades that standardized tests are poor measures of academic success. Bubble tests can assess simple things but nothing complex. After all, they’re scored based on answers to multiple choice questions. In fact, the only thing they seem to measure with any degree of accuracy is the parental income of the test-taker. Kids from rich families score well, and poor kids score badly.

So these comparisons are suspect.

But even if we accept them, we are leaving out a very important factor: Poverty.

Virtually all of the top scoring countries taking the PISA exam have much less child poverty than the U.S. As we’ve seen, this will boost their scores. If we adjust our scores for poverty, our students jump to the top of the list.

Let me repeat that: U.S. students do the best in the world on international tests – IF THEY ARE NOT POOR.

Moreover, the U.S. education system does something that many international systems do not. We educate everyone! Foreign systems often weed children out by high school. They don’t let every child get 13 years of grade school (counting kindergarten). They only school their highest achievers.

So when we compare ourselves to these countries, we’re comparing ALL of our students to only SOME theirs – their best academic pupils, to be exact. Yet we still hold our own given these handicaps!

In short, U.S. public schools do an excellent job educating children. They overcome incredible obstacles to achieve near miraculous ends often with very few resources.

Imagine what they could achieve if our schools were properly funded.

3) “We spend too much on education already.”

This one is a favorite of politicians of both parties. We already spend a lot on education. Some lawmakers and media personalities go so far as to claim that we spend more than any other country in the world.

Is that true? No.

We are near the top, but according to the most recent OECD study, four countries – Austria, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland – spend more.

Additionally, the study was released in 2014 but used data from 2011. Since that time, the U.S. has cut its school spending by leaps and bounds while most other advanced nations have been increasing it. Look for many more countries to pass us up when the next study is released.

But even using current figures, there are troubling social, economic and political differences between nations that impact how school funding needs to be spent. While most advanced countries spend their education budgets on actual instruction, the United States mandates public schools use a larger portion of their budgets on things outside the classroom.

For example, many international schools don’t have metal detectors or security staff. Given the U.S. problem with mass shootings and gun violence, our schools need to spend a significant portion of their monies in this way. I’m not suggesting we stop. Clearly we need to continue these practices, but that’s less money to help kids learn.

In addition, unfunded legislative mandates and court decisions have made U.S. public schools responsible for many things that international schools are not. About one third of all budget increases in recent years has gone to support special education students; 8 percent went to dropout prevention programs, alternative instruction, and counseling aimed at keeping students in school; another 8 percent went to expand school lunch programs; and so forth. Very few additional dollars were provided for needs associated with basic instruction.

Again, I’m not saying we should stop. Given our national epidemic of child poverty – an epidemic not shared by other advanced nations – we have to address these adjacent issues. But without additional funding, we’re letting the very heart of our schools – the classroom – go to waste while other countries are providing significantly more support.

Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t end there. Not only does the U.S. have unique problems that other nations do not share, we also are unique in how we allocate the funding we already have. And this difference only worsens the problem and increases the need for more money.

While most advanced countries divide their education dollars evenly between students, the United States does not. Some students get more, some get less. It all depends on local wealth.

The average per pupil expenditure for U.S. secondary students is $12,731. But that figure is deceiving. It is an average. Some kids get much more. Many get much less. It all depends on where you live. If your home is in a rich neighborhood, more money is spent on your education than if you live in a poor neighborhood.

The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world – if not probably the ONLY country – that funds schools based largely on local taxes. Other developed nations either equalize funding or provide extra money for kids in need. In the Netherlands, for example, national funding is provided to all schools based on the number of pupils enrolled. But for every guilder allocated to a middle-class Dutch child, 1.25 guilders are allocated for a lower-class child and 1.9 guilders for a minority child – exactly the opposite of the situation in the U.S.

So even though we spend more than many countries, we spend it so unevenly that poor and minority children are being left out.

Therefore, we have a choice: either do away with funding based on local property taxes or increase funding to poor school districts – or both.

4) “Kids don’t deserve more of my cash.”

Dollars to doughnuts, this is probably what he really means.

The United States has a moral failing. And we’re proud of it. We call it libertarianism. It means – Screw you! I’ve got mine.

We don’t care about helping others, we don’t care about the common good, we only look out for ourselves and our immediate friends and families. Everyone else can eat crap and die.

It’s ethical immaturity and, frankly, there’s not much you can say to someone who feels this way except that you disagree.

At most you can try to appeal to his self interest. Do you really want to live in a society full of uneducated people? Do you really want your kids to grow up in a world like that?

But that’s as far as it goes. You can’t help emotionally and intellectually stunted people – especially adults. Most children go through this phase. Some never grow out of it.

The good news is that most of us aren’t so far gone. If you can show that our interlocutor’s statement really comes down to this, you may be able to convince some people to agree with you simply because no one wants to be such an odious troll.

You need to pull back the curtain and show the truth.

How do we best spend these education dollars? How do we raise the money? Those are valid questions, but only a truly horrible person simply refuses to help children learn.

Because we’re not “throwing money” at schools. We’re throwing certain kids away.


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive, Commondreams.org and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

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79 thoughts on “Do Americans “Throw Money” At Their Schools? A Fair Funding Primer

  1. […] The number went from 7,009 to 15,089 schools. And that’s just the worst offenders – schools with more than three quarters of students from only one race or class. Throughout the country there are thousands more schools not as extreme but still serving mostly poor and/or minority students, and thus receiving fewer resources, more teacher layoffs, dealing with larger classes and crumbling infrastru…. […]

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