Education

The Pernicious Myth of Shrinking Public-School Budgets

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Public-school funding has actually been increasing for decades. The real problem is a lack of incentive for schools to meet students’ needs.

Some myths never die. The Biden administration just proposed another $100 billion for school-building upgrades on top of the mostly unspent $193 billion in stimulus funding Congress had already allocated to K–12 education over the past year. Yet major media outlets are still repeating the verifiably false assertion that U.S. public-school budgets have been shrinking for decades.

Just last week, a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed columnist claimed that “state lawmakers have drastically reduced state funding for public schools over the last generation.”

That statement is not true. Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education confirm that total per-student, inflation-adjusted public-school funding has increased by 48 percent since 2000 and by 73 percent since 1990. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics go back further and show that such funding has increased 117 percent since 1980 and by 201 percent since 1970. That’s right — Pennsylvania’s education spending per student has tripled in real terms over the last half century.

The latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate Pennsylvania’s public schools received about $20,435 in funding per student in 2018, which was about 38 percent higher than the national average at the time, and about 76 percent higher than the Keystone State’s current average private-school tuition. Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau also reveal that about 29 percent of Pennsylvania’s entire state budget goes toward education.

Worst of all is that the Inquirer was forced to correct the same erroneous assertion less than a year and a half ago. In December 2019, an Inquirer reporter claimed that public education had seen “drastic cuts to funding over the last few decades.” When pressed, the outlet changed that false statement to another false claim: that public education had seen “drastic cuts to funding over the last decade.”

Data from Pennsylvania and nationwide proved both of those statements to be false. But instead of retracting the article or changing the argument when presented with the facts, the journalist stuck with the same narrative after finally correcting the verifiably false claims about funding cuts.

This myth is persistent and widespread. After I pressured editors for eight days in 2019, for example, the Washington Post corrected a piece by the dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, which had falsely claimed that “public funding for schools has actually decreased since the late 1980s, adjusting for constant dollars.”

As the correction states, “This was not the case. In fact, funding at the federal, state and local levels has increased between the 1980s and 2019.”

Again, although this claim was central to the thesis of the Post’s piece, the outlet preserved the story’s argument — that we just need to throw more money at the problem — instead of retracting the article entirely. In fact, to this day, the subheading still says that “the one thing we haven’t tried in the past 30 years is sufficiently investing in our schools,” even though the U.S. has increased inflation-adjusted spending per student by 39 percent since 1990.

Peddling this false narrative leads us to do more of the same thing over and over again. Voters may be more likely to support throwing good money after bad at the system without success if they believe the lie that we’ve been decreasing public-school funding for decades.

For instance, a nationally representative survey conducted in 2020 by Education Next asked respondents how much the U.S. spent on K–12 education per student. Perhaps because of the constant stream of misinformation in mainstream-media outlets, respondents guessed that the U.S. only spent $8,140 per student per year, or about 44 percent less than the actual amount at that time. The same survey found that informing a randomly selected group of respondents of the real spending amounts reduced its members’ chances of supporting more school spending by about 24 percent.

The reality is that simply pouring more money into the system is unlikely to fix it unless there are real incentives to spend that money wisely. We’ve substantially increased public-school funding for decades without meaningful improvements in educational outcomes. The latest data from the Nation’s Report Card found that only 24 and 37 percent of U.S. twelfth-graders were proficient in math and reading, respectively, in 2019 — and only 15 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in U.S. History in 2018. Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek also reviewed nearly 400 studies on the topic and concluded that “there is not a strong or consistent relationship between student performance and school resources.”

One problem is that additional public-school funding often doesn’t make its way into the classroom. Kennesaw State University’s Ben Scafidi has revealed that inflation–adjusted K–12 education spending per student increased by 27 percent between 1992 and 2014 in the U.S. — but that teacher salaries dropped by 2 percent in real terms over the same period. At the same time, in Pennsylvania, inflation-adjusted K–12 education spending per student increased by 38 percent, while teacher salaries dropped by 3 percent in constant dollars.

Dr. Scafidi additionally found that the number of full-time teachers in the U.S. increased two and a half times as fast as the number of students between 1950 and 2015 — and that the number of administrators and other staff increased more than seven times as fast as the number of students over the same period. Data from the U.S. Department of Education similarly indicate that the number of administrative staff grew over ten times faster than the number of students between 2000 and 2017.

Allocating resources toward administrative bloat and staffing surges is great for teachers’ unions, because it gives them more political power in numbers and more revenues from additional dues-paying members. But those kinds of spending decisions reduce the likelihood that individual teachers will see meaningful increases in their salaries over time.

The problem is that the public-school monopoly currently has little incentive to allocate new resources toward the students in the classrooms, because public-school families usually don’t have meaningful exit options. In fact, at least five studies on the topic each find that competition from nearby private and charter schools generally leads to higher salaries for teachers in the traditional public-school system, because competition gives their employers stronger incentives to spend money wisely.

It’s long past time for us to fix the messed up incentive structure that’s baked into the public-school system by funding students directly and empowering families. Until we get our priorities right and fund students instead of institutions, those institutions will never be motivated to cater to the needs of students and their families.

Corey DeAngelis is the national director of research at the American Federation for Children, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and a senior fellow at the Reason Foundation.

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