Photo by Steven Sokulski
It's that time of year, when invitations to high school graduations arrive in your mail and photos from graduations pop up in your Facebook News Feed. How happy we are to see our family and friends' children complete this milestone!
But in many communities around the country, families with kids still in schools are increasingly concerned about the conditions of the schools they'll return to in the fall—or even if the schools will open at all.
In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school system, the district’s school chief announced that schools may not open in the fall due to a budget impasse in the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois.
In Kansas, Republican Governor Sam Brownback has called a special session of the state legislature to determine how to address a ruling from the state's supreme court that calls on the state to fix school funding or risk not having its schools reopen in the fal.
In Pennsylvania, state lawmakers fell far short of Governor Tom Wolf's school funding requests and left state education budgets far short of what's needed. Due to the inadequacy of state funding, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, “at least 60 percent of Pennsylvania school districts plan to raise property taxes and nearly a third expect to cut staff.” A third of respondents said their schools will increase class sizes in the year ahead.
Moreover, according to Education Week, “natural resource-dependent states”—such as Alaska, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and West Virginia—are pulling “millions from their rainy day funds,” rather than raising taxes to fund schools.
In Louisiana, the budget proposal would still leave schools in the lurch financially, leading to “teacher layoffs, cuts to programs, and cuts to the state’s department of education.” Oklahoma schools are looking at a shortfall of $60 million.
In North Carolina, conservative lawmakers are bragging about new teacher raises they just passed, but the state budget cuts millions from principal training, school Internet service, after-school programs, and a scholarship program to help fill shortages in math and science teachers.
You can place blame for the country's education funding crisis squarely at the feet of state lawmakers and policy leaders who simply refuse to fund schools.
State spending, which accounts for about half of most public school districts’ budgets, has been in steep decline for a number of years in most states. A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds, “Most states provide less support per student for elementary and secondary schools—in some cases, much less—than before the Great Recession,” which started in 2008.
So with states cutting school funds, tax burdens on middle-class families either have to go up at the local levels, or essential school resources—such as libraries, tech labs, nurses, counselors, and programs for arts, foreign languages, and athletics—go away, as is increasingly the case in communities of families who are least capable of bearing tax increases. (Federal spending accounts for less than 10 percent of K-12 school funding, historically.)
Consequently, national per-pupil spending on K-12 public schools has dropped for three straight years, according to the most recent federal financial data. In the meantime, student enrollment in public schools continues to grow, with steady increases projected through fall 2023, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
There is a persistent myth that somehow, when it comes to education, money doesn't matter. Of course, that notion is instantly refuted by the fact that wealthy people lavish their children with hugely expensive private-school educations. But there are empirical studies showing funding and student achievement levels are closely associated.
A recent review of the research on the effects of school funding on school outcomes, "Does Money Matter in Education?" by Rutgers University Professor Bruce Baker, finds that spending more money on education tends to benefit students "and there is scarce evidence that there are more cost-effective alternatives.”
A study of schools in Michigan shows that additional funding can lead to increased college attendance and college completion. Two other recent papers from Stanford and Berkeley show increases in spending can result in gains in achievement levels and high school graduation rates.
Another review of research, "How Do You Fix Schools? Maybe Just Give Them More Money," by Jordan Weissmann for online news outlet Slate, finds that when schools get more money, they “seem to use their new funding in reasonable ways.” And “they get results.”
Of course, more money is not a panacea, and we need wise oversight of school spending. But as you celebrate graduation season, be sure to congratulate graduates and their schools for a job well done, then tell your elected officials to do theirs and fully fund our schools.
Jeff Bryant is the Progressive Education Lead Fellow and Southeast Regional Fellow. He is also director of the Education Opportunity Network and associate fellow at Campaign for America's Future. Follow Jeff on Twitter at @jeffbcdm.