The Schools That Cried ‘Wolf’

Los Angeles public school system teachers hold a rally at City Hall after going on strike in Los Angeles, Calif., January 14, 2019. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
Given how familiar schools’ complaints about underfunding are, it’s difficult to take at face value the coronavirus catalogue of demands.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T hose charged with running America’s schools have been demanding massive new outlays from state and federal officials. In no uncertain terms, they’ve suggested that they’re ready to keep schools shuttered if lawmakers don’t pony up. In California, state superintendent Tony Thurmond insisted that “school districts can’t reopen safely” if budgets are cut. The superintendents of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and other school districts co-authored a letter to California lawmakers threatening that any “cuts will mean” keeping schools closed even after “clearance from public health officials is given.”

In late April, superintendents of 62 big school districts wrote Congress to demand $200 billion in additional aid, warning that “dark clouds are forming on the educational horizon that will spell disaster if Congress does not intervene.” The National Education Association declared: “Congress must act now . . . We cannot properly reopen schools if funding is slashed.” And, this week, American Association of School Administrators executive director Daniel Domenech relayed that some districts officials are saying, “It’s early, but I have to tell you, I don’t see how we could possibly open without additional funds.”

The coronavirus shutdown has obviously upended budgets across the land. State and local tax collections will be down across the board next year, requiring cuts across a range of public services. Schools have indeed incurred unforeseen expenses due to the pandemic, and reopening in the fall will mean unanticipated outlays on things such as personal protective equipment and deep cleaning. We’ll stipulate that Uncle Sam has a role to play in helping schools navigate these challenges.

And yet, given how familiar these complaints are, it’s difficult to take at face value the catalogue of demands — or the threats of dire consequences. More than a year before the coronavirus crisis, United Teachers Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl was urging his teachers to strike in order “to get the basics for [Los Angeles] students.” Of course, Caputo-Pearl neglected to mention that the Los Angeles Unified School District was spending $18,788 per student, average teacher pay in Los Angeles was $78,962, and many of the district’s frustrations were due to UTLA’s unwillingness to adjust employee benefits, which had grown an astounding 138 percent between 2001 and 2016.

In 2019, the American Federation of Teachers launched their “Fund Our Future” campaign, promising to take on “years of disinvestment [that] have hurt our students and faculty and led to overcrowded classrooms . . . and unhealthy, unsafe environments.” Taxpayers might have been surprised to learn that a 27 percent increase in real (after-inflation) per-pupil spending between 2000 and 2016 constituted “years of disinvestment.” (While 2016 is the last year for which national data are available, a robust economy and historically low unemployment during 2017-2019 meant that those were good years for state budgets.)  Meanwhile, the U.S. today boasts a teacher for every 15 students, and a school staff member for every eight — none of which suggests classrooms are “overcrowded” (unless it’s because staff keep bumping into one another).

In May, New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza decried the state of New York City’s education budget, telling city-council members, “We are cutting the bone. There is no fat to cut, no meat to cut.” Carranza failed to mention that New York City is one of the highest-spending school systems in the country — spending an extraordinary $28,900 per student in 2019, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. Shortly after Carranza’s histrionics, it was reported that the administration had added 340 positions to the central bureaucracy and borough offices in 2019.

Carranza may well have been channeling former U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan, who employed similarly purple language in 2009, declaring: “The vast majority of districts around the country have literally been cutting for five, six, seven years in a row. And, many of them, you know, are through, you know, fat, through flesh, and into bone.” But this was a flat-out untruth. In fact, Duncan said that at a time when average per-pupil spending across the land had increased 36 percent in the prior seven years.

In 2004, President George W. Bush’s partner in enacting the No Child Left Behind Act, Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, continued to pound Bush for refusing to adequately support schools. Kennedy proclaimed, “It’s time for the White House to realize that America cannot expand opportunity and embrace the future on a tin-cup education budget.” In truth, federal spending on education nearly doubled in Bush’s first term (from $29.4 billion to $55.7 billion), the largest single-term increase ever recorded in education spending — as Republicans proudly advertised in their 2004 platform.

The narrative that America’s schools are chronically underfunded has a hoary pedigree. As researchers Arthur Peng and Jim Guthrie observed a decade ago, “If one relies on newspaper headlines for education funding information, one might conclude that America’s schools suffer from a perpetual fiscal crisis, every year perched precariously on the brink of financial ruin, never knowing whether there will be sufficient funding to continue operating.”

The media have certainly amplified current laments about inadequate funding. In early June, Reuters reported, “Multiple school district administrators, public officials and teaching experts have warned that the current school personnel job loss will last for years, hurting the education of a generation of American students.” NPR has cautioned that “school leaders are warning of a financial meltdown that could devastate many districts and set back an entire generation of students.” The Washington Post warned: “Educators fear a scenario worse than the Great Recession.”

It can be easy to read these reports and come away with the impression that spending even a dollar less on education could spell ruin. It’s helpful to put these numbers in context. The U.S. spends upward of $700 billion on K–12 education a year, or about $14,000 per student. That’s 39 percent more than the average OECD nation. And many of the nation’s big-city districts spend considerably more — with per-pupil spending exceeding $20,000 per year in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Boston. That may come as a surprise to most Americans, who believe that the average district only spends about half as much as it actually does.

Meanwhile, many advanced economies that spend considerably less on education than the U.S. have already managed to reopen their schools. Israel, for example, which spends $8,500 per pupil, reopened most schools with enhanced safety measures almost a month ago. Germany, Japan, New Zealand, and Finland are likewise reopening schools, despite spending thousands less per pupil than the typical American school.

Now, none of this means that school districts aren’t in a tough place. They are. School leaders are facing difficult decisions, due partly to economic shocks and partly to bad habits and dubious decisions they’ve made over time. But it’s hard to take the threats and the caterwauling at face value after year upon year of insistence that every budget increase was insufficient and a portent of ruin.

At the end of “Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf,’” the wolf finally arrives — but a jaded community has learned to tune out the cries. As educational leaders navigate the next twelve months and beyond, they’d do well to pull that ageless tale off the library shelves and contemplate its somber message.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Matthew Rice is a research assistant at AEI.

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