What Cory Booker’s Newark says about school spending

As mayor of one of America’s most crime-ridden cities, Cory Booker was elected to the Senate on Wednesday as a poster child for education reform. The charismatic mayor of Newark, known for his powerful fan base from Twitter to the Hollywood Hills, famously wielded his influence in 2010 to score a $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to his city’s failing public schools. Announced on Oprah in Booker’s typical media-savvy fashion, the country cheered on this unprecedented private investment in public education.

Unfortunately for Newark’s schoolchildren, not much was done to track how effectively the money was being spent, eventually leading to a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union. Despite the influx of new funds, not much has changed in Newark. As of 2011, only 30 percent of Newark students who started the ninth grade ended up graduating. While Booker and his buddies have made some strong claims about academic achievement in the years hence, the editorial board Newark-based Star-Ledger has warned that it’s “too soon to tell” whether the city’s schools have really improved.

Sadly, Newark’s story of financial mismanagement in education is by no means new. Educational expenditures across the country have swelled for decades with little to show in student performance. The total cost of educating a public school student has tripled over the past four decades after adjusting for inflation, from approximately $55,000 in 1970 to $165,000 in 2010. Meanwhile, test scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress – widely accepted as the national yardstick for student achievement – have flatlined over the same time period. Reading scores have increased by only one point among 17-year-olds since 1971, and mathematics by merely two since 1973.

But despite public education’s skyrocketing price tag and stagnating quality, cutting school spending has remained a third rail of politics for decades. Any elected official who suggests anything less than maintaining the status quo of public schools’ budget bloat is labeled a “corporatist,” scheming to completely “privatize”  public education, to borrow two of liberal education guru Diane Ravitch’s favorite words.

One recent example of this bloat or bust attitude towards educational expenditures is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ September update of their annual report tracking states’ per pupil spending. With dramatic red charts and alarming rhetoric, CBPP claims that 34 states have slashed their public school expenditures since the start of the recent recession in 2008. Their findings have been reported far and wide, with national news sources from CNN to USA Today and countless others in the states decrying a crisis in school funding.

Little does the public know that CBPP is painting a distorted picture. While their research is right that many states have experienced declining revenues during the recent economic downturn, state spending is only one slice of a school’s budget. Federal grants and local property taxes also add to schools’ revenues, and, when considering the totality of sources, the vast majority of states have only increased their spending.