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GARION FRANKEL: Public Schools Don’t Need More Money — They Need To Spend It More Wisely

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Garion Frankel Contributor
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As states like Arkansas, Texas, Florida, and South Carolina brace for protracted battles regarding proposed school choice legislation, a familiar argument has returned to public debate — that public schools are gruesomely underfunded, and need all the support they can get.

Americans seem to believe it too. A recent Hart Research poll found that 66% of Americans believe that too little is spent on education, and 69% want to see more school spending. School choice, so the argument goes, would divert sorely-needed funds to private schools, thereby depriving students remaining in public schools of educational opportunities. Opponents of school choice instead propose to dramatically increase public school funding. While “more money” is presented as the fix-all solution to nearly every educational issue, this debate masks a larger problem: Advocates of increasing public school funds have no idea where the money goes. (RELATED: BROOKE ROLLINS: Public Schools Go To War Against Merit)

For reference, American schools spend an average of $16,993 per student — that’s the 7th highest rate among developed nations. Moreover, inflation-adjusted school spending has increased by a whopping 280% since 1960. In addition, there is scant evidence to suggest that school choice defunds public schools. In fact, it’s debated that school choice increases public schools’ efficiency and saves taxpayers money. Clearly the opposing argument is grounded in something besides the baseline numbers themselves. 

Nevertheless, the old mantra continues that public schools just need more money to solve all their problems. Indeed, with states like Arizona, Utah, and Iowa embracing universal school choice models, public education advocates are only doubling-down on this rhetoric. But if public education advocates intend to block school choice programs on the grounds that public schools are being insufficiently supported, they should at least be able to indicate how much money public schools really need. There is significant evidence to prove that the financial problems facing public schools can be addressed with more scrupulous budgeting — not increased funding. 

Teachers are constantly calling for higher pay, and yet despite massive, wholesale increases in school funding, inflation-adjusted teacher salaries have remained almost stagnant for nearly three decades. Increased funding wouldn’t help as the funding is all there, only it’s going towards hiring administrators, not paying teachers. Between 2000 and 2017, the number of school administrators increased by 75%, often commanding salaries of $100,000 or more. This growth has been compounded by a post-COVID hiring binge, even though the number of students has grown only modestly, or even declined in some cases. 

Along with heavy administrative payrolls, education funds also carry the dead weight of the retirement benefits for every new employee who retires. Many states and districts are already struggling against the rising tide of pension debt. As such, any increases in public school funding won’t go towards the classroom — the extra money will go towards patching pension holes instead. The broken system will only continue to strain educational resources, which will mean increasing class sizes, limiting extracurricular programs, freezing salaries, and perhaps even firing teachers.

The worst part is that superintendents who plea for extra cash refuse to look in the mirror. “Just keep adding, and we’ll tell you when you get there,” one superintendent told the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. That was in 2016. That same superintendent used a massive social media marketing campaign to get a $130.6 million bond passed three years later. Mark Henry, superintendent of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in Texas, recently co-wrote an op-ed arguing that charter schools are a Trojan horse for vouchers, both of which constitute an irresponsible use of taxpayer funds. He earns a higher salary than the president. And school district after school district reacts to the mere mention of an audit with fury. 

These tactics have proven enormously successful with voters. A 2022 survey in Oklahoma found that more than 60% of respondents underestimated the percentage of the state’s budget spent on education. An older Friedman Foundation (now EdChoice) poll found that 63% of respondents underestimated per-pupil education spending, while the Commonwealth Foundation pegged that number at 73%. 

Moreover, after the Commonwealth Foundation’s participants were made aware of Pennsylvania’s real education spending (which was roughly twice what they predicted), 54% of respondents said that they would not support tax increases to boost education funding. Respondents’ support for increasing public education funding, regardless of whether or not it would require a tax increase, also declined by 9%. Furthermore, respondents expressed anger that their tax dollars were only securing mediocre results, clamoring for widespread reforms and school choice opportunities — and this was long before COVID. 

Public education in America is not underfunded. The fact that advocates have to rely on obfuscation and misinformation to woo voters suggests that the main problem is not how much money is allocated, but how districts distribute the money they receive. In determining how to allocate education funds, parents, voters, and Americans at large deserve to know how their money is really being spent, and to have their own say about it. 

Garion Frankel is an MPA candidate at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, where he focuses on education policy and American political thought. He is a Young Voices contributor and was previously a reporter for Chalkboard Review.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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