Misconceptions about Education Spending

(Part 1 in my longer post on conventional wisdom in education)

Spending is the guiding principle for how most people make sense of education policy. We have very high expectations for what our public schools need to offer and, on top of that, we frequently assume that reform means more spending.

This spiral has led to the United States spending more than almost any other developed country despite having poor relative rankings on international measures of education quality. This misconception drives a lot of the dysfunction and gluttony in the system. We can’t just spend our way out of education problems. We’ve tried and it’s led to education being one of the largest parts of the US federal budget despite the fact that most of us are dissatisfied with the results.

The US spends more on poor students than non-poor students

A common misconception about US education is that the property-tax based funding of local school districts makes it so that poor students are underfunded relative to non-poor students. There’s some truth to this statement. A lot of districts do fund schools based on property taxes and there are large differences in school funding between states. This spending disparity closely matches the actual educational ranking of the states. This, again, makes it look like poorer students are being left out to dry, and although that is the case in some cases, on average US school funding is somewhat progressive.

The combination of state, local, and federal school funding makes it so that the districts attended by poor students are funded 2.5% more than non-poor students. And even within districts, “schools with less advantaged students spend at least as much (and often significantly more).”

source from RCA post

On average poor students don’t receive less funding, but there are a lot of confounding factors. Although the majority of states are progressively funded, there are some examples like South Carolina and Tennessee that have about the same amount of spending per student.

On top of that there’s also a clear disparity in extra voluntary funding per district. Parents will end up donating huge amounts of money to their children’s school to help pay for extracurriculars, facilities, and support staff. There’s a Vox Future Perfect podcast episode on this (episode named “Your PTA vs Equality”) that details the fight within a wealthy California community in redistributing donations across the district. Basically, parents weren’t allowed to directly donate to their children’s school. Instead any donation would be re-distributed across the district. It’s an extreme example that is unrepresentative of most of the country. Parent donations still make up a fraction of per-student spending and so I’d be skeptical of anyone who presents this story as being a particularly impactful lever for change in US education.

You could also argue that education spending within poor urban districts has less purchasing power than suburban districts. I couldn’t find research on this and it certainly won’t describe every district in the United States, but it might be worth considering. For example, take the district I teach in, Nashville. Nashville property prices are booming, the city is swelling with new arrivals, and the cost of living is exploding. That means that school property prices are increasing alongside teacher cost-of-living. The district is also becoming increasing regulated in terms of zoning and building restrictions. That means that any new building could end up being considerably more costly than many suburban areas. The district will also likely need to pay teachers more in order to meet basic quality of life. All of these factors could add up to making it so that every dollar that goes to suburban and rural districts goes a lot further than every dollar spent in urban districts.

Overall, we spend more on poor students than non-poor students. At the very least, we can’t keep scapegoating all of our education problems on school funding. I should say, though, that getting real about education funding could still lead to us spending even more on poor students. We can frame that as closing the gap made by parent donations to richer schools or by just acknowledging that our poor schools just need so much more funding to be successful. That’s okay and it’s a conversation that’s still worth having.

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