Politics & Policy

Books & Bombers

Who really needs a bake sale?

We’ve all seen the bumper sticker that reads, “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” A more accurate bumper sticker would say the reverse. Despite nonstop whining to the contrary, the truth is that public schools receive a fairly large amount of money for each child. And that amount has been rising steadily for the last few decades, easily exceeding the dollars spent on defense.

In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Education, public schools spent $8,830 per child nationwide during the 2000-1 school year. This is up from $4,626 thirty years earlier, using 2000-1 dollars. To put this $8,830 spent per student in perspective, the median household in the U.S. earned $42,151 in 2000. Schools may want to have bake sales because it is a good idea to get families involved in their schools, but it is difficult to say that schools are woefully under-funded.

By comparison to the funding given to education, the Air Force might actually need to have that bake sale to buy another bomber. In 2000 the Department of Defense spent $295 billion versus $392 billion spent in 2000-1 on public elementary and secondary education. That doesn’t even include the amount spent on higher education or spent in the private sector. If we total up all of these education expenditures, we find that $700 billion was spent on education during the 2000-1 school year, which represents more than 7 percent of our Gross Domestic Product. The Defense Department, by comparison received 3 percent of GDP during 2000. Even with the more recent increases in defense spending as part of the war on terrorism and even with the much-bemoaned cuts in education spending during the current budget crises in many states, we will continue to spend more than twice as much of the wealth our nation produces each year on education than we do on defending ourselves against foreign threats.

Given that education spending dwarfs defense spending and rivals only healthcare in its claim upon the public purse, how is it that the widespread myth of the impoverished school persists? The most common strategy for perpetuating the myth of school poverty is to simply ignore the facts and repeat the myth. Jonathon Kozol, for example, has made an entire career lamenting the “under-funding” of public schools. In Savage Inequalities he pulls our heart strings describing New York City public schools where “textbooks are scarce… the carpets are patched… [and] the library is a tiny, windowless, and claustrophobic room.” He doesn’t mention that New York City public schools spend more per pupil than 95 of the 100 largest school districts in the country. He can only point out that some other schools spend even more. Any level of spending that is less than the maximum spent by others is inadequate in his mind.

But clearly this standard is unreasonable otherwise anyone not dining on filet mignon is suffering from malnutrition. And he never considers that the shortcomings of New York City public schools are caused by wasteful spending rather than the shortage of funds. For Kozol and the waves of education-school students and New York Times Magazine readers who are subjected to his indoctrination, the problem is always the lack of money and the solution is always more.

When simply ignoring the evidence on the high and rising level of education spending is insufficient, the myth of school poverty is perpetuated by resorting to unusual accounting arguments. That is, some argue that once “special” items are set aside, per pupil spending actually hasn’t increased very much over time. This type of reasoning resembles (and is about as persuasive as) claims by publicly traded companies that they really had good profits once special charges are excluded. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute is the dean of this special accounting school of thought. First, he sets aside the spending increases that have gone to special education. Then he sets aside the additional funds that have been devoted to nutrition and health programs as well as programs to teach immigrants English. And then he sets aside rising teacher costs attributable to an aging teaching profession creeping up the union pay scale that gives more senior teachers higher salaries. And, viola! The near doubling in education spending that you thought had occurred was really only a modest increase for “regular education.”

Of course, none of these special adjustments are warranted in a proper calculation of the large and growing amount spent on schools. Additional money spent on special education, nutrition, health, and assimilation of immigrants should all be improving student achievement and therefore should all be included when considering the effort devoted to education. Increasing spending on special education is not, or at least should not be thought of as, money flushed down the toilet. It should be helping students improve their achievement given their disabilities and therefore all of those dollars are relevant. Similarly, giving students lunch and now breakfast has been justified on the basis that hungry students don’t learn very well. Additional dollars spent on those nutrition programs also have to be counted. Teaching immigrants English obviously is designed to produce academic improvements and cannot be treated as a “special charge.” And the fact that pay-scale creep has inflated teacher salaries is simply an inefficiency in how public schools are operated and cannot be separated when computing how much those schools really cost.

The hard reality is that we spend a large amount of money on education and have every reason to expect something in return. We spend considerably less on national defense and yet reasonably expect our armed forces to protect all of our lives and fortunes from foreign dangers. And the armed forces do this difficult job without soliciting donations and without an army of apologists blaming their shortcoming on a lack of funds. It will be nice when educators adopt a similar “can-do” attitude.

Jay P. Greene is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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