America is spending less on educating our 50 million public school children than we did before the Great Recession, a disturbing new study shows. That means we are shortchanging these children and running the risk of under-educating our next generation. And that spells trouble for our economy and society.
The study, published last month by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, found that in 36 states the combined total state and local spending on elementary and secondary schools fell from 2008 to 2014, despite the improving economy.
“As common sense suggests – and academic research confirms – money matters for educational outcomes,” the study found. “For instance, poor children who attend better-funded schools are more likely to complete high school and have higher earnings and lower poverty rates in adulthood.”
Education spending is a big-ticket item, amounting to $620 billion in local, state and federal spending in 2012–13, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Yet we owe our children more if we expect them to thrive in today’s knowledge economy.
The fact that U.S. students trail their peers in many other countries has been widely reported, but the extent to which they haven’t kept pace should raise alarm bells. A 2013 study comparing the performance of 15-year-olds in 65 countries on a test called the Program for International Student Assessment found that even after adjusting for poverty, American students failed to rank among students in the top 25 countries in math or the top 15 in reading.
A follow-up study issued this year of the same results found that 29 percent of U.S. students scored below a basic baseline level in at least one subject and 12 percent scored below a basic baseline level on all three PISA tests (math, reading and science). In contrast, less than 5 percent of students in two regions of China (Shanghai and Hong Kong), Vietnam, South Korea and Estonia scored below the baseline on all three tests.
California provides us with an excellent, if sad, case study of how tightfisted government spending hurts children — particularly low-income children — who attend public schools. In a 2013 book, David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, described the decline of California schools after a so-called taxpayer revolt resulted in passage of an amendment to the state constitution in 1978 that sharply limited property taxes, slashing funding for public schools.
"Once the best-funded schools in America, [the California schools] now rank 47th, spending a third less than the national average,” Kirp wrote. “Dollars matter – you will frequently find more than thirty kids in a fifth grade classroom in California, more than forty in a senior English class. Laboring under these circumstances, how can teachers juggle their time effectively, making sure that students who need extra help don't get lost in the shuffle?
“Is it any wonder that California’s NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] scores are among the lowest in the country?”
And I can testify from personal experience that providing adequate funds to educate students can change their lives for the better and lead to amazing academic accomplishments. I have seen this many times when the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which I head, has awarded scholarships to outstanding low-income high school as well as college students.
I also saw this as New York City schools chancellor when we set aside money to educate 300,000 students during the summers. Students who attended the summer programs for three years saw their math proficiency go up an average of a full two years.
This country has many very talented educators, but it is indisputable that schools in the U.S. are forced to recruit new teachers from the bottom quarter of college graduates. Countries that routinely surpass us in student achievement — including South Korea, New Zealand, Israel, Sweden and Denmark — get teachers primarily from the top quarter of graduating classes. So should we.
Schools need to increase spending to get the best teachers, hold down class sizes so students get the individual attention they need, hire more and better-trained counselors, get the up-to-date books and supplies students require, run year-round classes for the weakest students and improve or replace aging school buildings. They also need to do a better job contouring instruction to meet student needs.
This is an expensive list. It will require states and localities to bite the bullet and raise taxes or find funds elsewhere in their budgets. The federal government will need to come up with more funding as well.
Under-funding education is the height of myopic self-interest and an example of educational malfeasance on a grotesque level. We must figure out a way to do better, because failing to meet our responsibility to children today will cause irreparable harm to them and our nation far into the future.
Former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy is executive director of the Cooke Foundation, which has awarded more than $152 million in scholarships to nearly 2,200 high-achieving students from low-income families and more than $90 million in grants to organizations that serve such students.