Why All the Fuss About Education Funding?

The consistent refrain of the media and education advocacy groups is that the education system in the US is woefully underfunded.  Our school systems cannot provide a quality education for our children with the meager scraps thrown to them by our governments.  Teachers are so underpaid that they are practically living under bridges in cardboard boxes.  When are we going to wake up to the terror we are inflicting on our children by not adequately funding education?

As you might have guessed by the growing level of alarmism in the paragraph above we are setting you up for a paradigm shift in your understanding of educational funding.  As noted in the Declining Achievement page, the US is nowhere close to the top of international achievement.  What wasn’t noted however is that despite our academic struggles we are leading the world in the category of education funding.  We spend more yet we get less.  We outspend the rest of the world but we fall further behind academically.  Why then do the media and education advocacy groups clamor for increased educational funding?

Teacher Unions

The clamor originates with teacher unions.  Why?  Get close to your monitor and I’ll let you in on a little secret.  Just between the two of us.  Teacher unions don’t advocate for children, parents, or taxpayers – they advocate for teachers!  Whew, I’m glad I got that off my chest.

Despite their warm fuzzy commercials, teacher unions don’t give a rat’s nether regions about our kids or our tax rates when they are at the negotiating table.  Teacher’s pay and benefits have taken larger slices out of school budgets for decades (the same decades that achievement has declined mind you).  While at the bargaining table, teachers have also negotiated away accountability.  Currently, teacher’s compensation has no relationship to the quality of their product.  Which incidentally is the academic achievement our kids need to compete in a world full of better educated kids.

According to a local superintendent the minimum effort expected of teachers, as negotiated by the unions, will result in a classroom of kids NOT achieving a year’s worth of academic growth.  Nor is it possible to eliminate mediocre teachers from the system.  So teachers are trying to teach our kids how to reason yet they can’t reason out for themselves that they have created a system that is guaranteed to yield poor results.

Surely the teacher unions can’t be that bad!  You’re right – they’re worse.  Teacher unions have fought against everything that has proven to improve academic outcomes.  Teacher unions have come out against:

  • Charter schools
  • School vouchers
  • School choice
  • Longer school days
  • Longer school years
  • Home schooling
  • Merit or performance pay
  • Parent involvement
  • Accountability

The only things they have championed are education funding increases and smaller classroom sizes.

Surely smaller classrooms help!  Not really.  At least not enough to justify the additional expense.  Smaller classrooms sound good in theory but fail to deliver in practice.  Suppose a school has 75 kids each in Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grades and houses them in three classrooms per grade (25 kids per class).  The district’s goal is to have no more than 20 kids per class so the school now needs 4 total classrooms and 4 total teachers for each grade to have 20 kids or less per class (1 more classroom and 1 more teacher for each grade).  To achieve smaller classrooms the district has to:

  • Add rooms to existing schools or build additional schools which require capital construction funds
  • Hire additional teachers to teach the additional classes
  • Pay utilities for those classrooms
  • Buy additional classroom furniture and supplies
  • Etc., etc, etc.

However, long term benefits from smaller class size has not turned up in credible research.

A real life “for instance” happens to be Florida which mandated smaller classroom sizes in its state constitution.  Florida spent a small fortune on school additions and new school buildings to house the extra classrooms.  Next they had to find teachers to staff those rooms which is where things got sticky.  There simply weren’t enough qualified teachers available to meet the demand (see Economics for information on scarcity).  The end result was lower qualified teachers entering the system to teach the kids in the extra classes.  The state went to costly lengths to effectively lower the all-around competency of classroom teachers.  An unintended consequence but a foreseeable one nonetheless.  The only ones to benefit were the teacher unions as they saw their ranks swell with new union dues paying teachers (albeit lower quality).  Now you know why teacher unions advocate for smaller classroom sizes – it’s for clout rather than improving education.

Funding vs. Achievement

Suppose you and I make a bet.  You insist that there must be, at least, a strong correlation between how much each state spends on K-12 education and their academic achievement.  Well let’s play a little game I like to call “Find the Correlation”!  This list shows states ranked by their 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) combined scores of 4th and 8th grade math and 4th and 8th grade reading and compares them to 2009 Per Pupil Funding (PPF) levels.  Note that 2009 scores were not used in the comparison as only math was tested that year.  2007 PPF levels were not readily available but changes in PPF between 2007 and 2009 would have been minor and would not significantly alter the results.  Pay particular attention to the District of Columbia results.  The one district the federal government controls has the third highest funding level and is dead last in achievement.  Now look at South Dakota, only 12 states outperform them in the classroom but 41 states outspend them.  Colorado has similar numbers.  These results are what are known in economic circles as “bargains”.  High levels of spending don’t guarantee high academic achievement and modest education budgets don’t preclude great academic performance.

Look at the link again just to be sure.  Now pay up.

See our NAEP state rank for state achievement ranking over time and NAEP data for the raw data.  Data prior to 2003 is not available for all states and so not useful for comparison.  Visit the main NAEP website to learn more about this test and for additional data.  The data used in our tables came from this website though you wont find the data in a nice neat format on the NAEP website.  The NAEP website prefers not to rank states themselves or compare PPF as it is a little embarrassing.

OK.  So funding doesn’t correlate at the national level.  But in each state it must correlate from district-to-district and school-to-school, right?  If you double down on this bet you’ll only end up paying for our kid’s college tuition.  Funding doesn’t correlate with achievement at the district level either.  Metro areas have lower funded districts outperforming better funded districts.  And, generally speaking, the highest performing schools have the lowest funding level and the lowest performing schools have the highest funding level.  We’ll explore the reason for this in our Education Reforms page.