Guest commentary: Setting the record straight on K-12 funding

Jonathan Butcher

A recent Education Next poll found the general public, parents, teachers, Republicans and Democrats underestimate per-student spending by approximately $6,000.

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Viola asks to see the face of Olivia, a grieving countess who wears a veil.

“Is’t not well done?” asks Olivia. “Excellently done, if God did all,” Viola replies, slyly suggesting Olivia’s good looks would be impressive if they were natural and not due to the generous application of makeup.

Last week in the Washington Post, the University of Virginia’s Robert C. Pianta got his facts wrong, and he could not add enough color to the supposed benefits of socioemotional learning or the shortcomings of No Child Left Behind to obscure this simple truth: K-12 spending has not decreased over time.

And whether due to pressure exerted through social media (more on that below) or otherwise, the Post issued a correction to the spending claims this week. But Pianta’s position that increased spending should drive policy choices still drives his column and weakens some of his otherwise sensible proposals.

Pianta’s argument begins naturally enough. He points to the same examples of low test scores and uninspiring examples of student performance on the Nation’s Report Card and international tests that are cited by nearly every commentator on K-12 district schools in the U.S. (“ever-growing achievement gap,” “public schools in a state of crisis,” etc.).

Then come the cosmetics, poorly applied.

“This issue has been recognized for decades,” he says, but “politicians neglected to consider the thing that might improve education the most but never emerged as part of a far-reaching solution set: investing more public money in our teachers and children.”

“The biggest problem plaguing U.S. public schools,” he says, is “a lack of resources.” Funding has decreased since the late 1980s, Pianta said in the original column and cited a study by Rutgers Professor Bruce D. Baker—who proceeded to refute Pianta’s contention via twitter:

Baker’s comment is notable because he has argued that spending does matter in order to improve student outcomes, but even he took issue with this part of Pianta’s analysis.

In fact, Baker’s figures are too tame. After adjusting for inflation, K-12 spending per student has nearly doubled since 1980 and is nearly four times greater than 1960. Spending has increased in every category, from administration to instruction to plant operations. The financial crisis more than a decade ago temporarily stalled annual increases, but the downturn did not erase years of increases, and spending graphs are pointing up again (in May, the U.S. Census announced “U.S. Spending Per Pupil Increased for Fifth Consecutive Year”).

Even with the Post’s correction, Pianta’s column still says schools “have been starved for funds.”

Still, Pianta is not alone in his error. A nationally representative poll finds the general public, parents, teachers, Republicans, and Democrats underestimate per student spending by approximately $6,000. Borrowing from the Bard again: In Pianta’s hit, he misses. Once actual spending numbers are provided, fewer survey respondents say that we need more money in education.

Despite his creative accounting, Pianta closes with a welcome call for teacher unions “to become more responsive toward performance evaluations.” If policymakers want to increase teacher pay and benefits—which make up some 80 percent of school budgets—then taxpayers and parents should have better ways to measure teacher effectiveness. Across-the-board pay raises, as awarded recently in San Diego and in states where teachers went on strike earlier this year and last, are sloppy ideas that reward poorly-performing teachers as much as effective teachers. District officials should treat educators like professionals and compensate them accordingly.

And we should put this debate to rest. Pianta’s inaccurate claims of K-12 spending cuts cannot support his sensible plea for compromise over teacher evaluations and some of his other ideas, such as “inspiring talented people to enter the teacher workforce.”

The countess Olivia assures Viola that her good looks are natural and says, “’Tis in grain, sir, ‘twill endure wind and weather.” Pianta’s claims that K-12 spending has decreased were clearly less robust. Spending has increased over time, and the ways in which school leaders and lawmakers use these resources still matters more for student success than how much is spent.

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