Throwing Money at Education Won’t Improve Outcomes

Throwing Money at Education Won’t Improve Outcomes
(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

With every town hall, debate, and caucus, we’re inching closer to a Democratic presidential nominee. Several candidates have made astronomical spending promises during their campaigns in the area of education. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, vowed to quadruple federal Title I grants for disadvantaged students to $450 billion over 10 years. These kinds of wild spending proposals are becoming commonplace. A report released last year by California-based education consulting firm WestEd recommended that $8 billion be spent over the next several years for North Carolina school initiatives, in response to a decades-long educational inequality case.

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Cries to increase funding in the name of correcting inequality perpetuate the narrative that a lack of “proper” funding is the source of public education’s woes. But they’re wrong — as proven by the success of charter schools and their smart budgeting. 

Corey DeAngelis, the Reason Foundation’s Director of School Choice, examined per-pupil revenues and expenditures between public charter schools and district public schools in Texas. The study found that public charters were not only more cost-effective than their district-run counterparts, but that there was a positive relationship between per-pupil spending and testing outcomes for charter schools. This correlation didn’t exist for traditional district-run schools. So, while there’s obviously a minimum level of funding required to teach kids, it’s important to examine where money is being spent in order to know what can be improved. 

Just take a look at how things are playing out in North Carolina. Its per-pupil spending stands at an average of $9,367 — substantially higher than that of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. But the latter greatly outperform the United States in academic achievement.

One culprit could be the fact that in the U.S. a great deal more was spent on support staff (administration, operations, etc.) than teaching staff. Support services spending has increased by 50% between the 1999-2000 and 2014-2015 school years in North Carolina. Such has been the broader trend in the United States overall, where school staffing growth, reduced only briefly during the recession, climbed consistently since 1950 at a rate greater than student growth. So, while teaching staff in U.S. public schools grew by 243% between 1950 and 2015, administrative and support personnel increased a whopping 709% during the same period. 

Spending money on perpetual bureaucratic bloat and top-down pedagogical approaches that assume one-size-fits-all doesn’t mean educational equity will follow. Indeed, this growth of support services at greater rates than teaching faculty demonstrates just how large the educational-industrial complex has become. And the more distance put between bureaucrats making these funding decisions and the schools they work for, the less likely it is they’ll spend wisely (and the more likely they’ll never be satisfied with the amount received). 

The rising number and popularity of charter schools in states like North Carolina and Texas, then, illustrate the effectiveness of local educational governance and decision-making, especially concerning finances and student achievement. In 2011, the North Carolina General Assembly lifted the charter school cap from its maximum of 100. As a result, charters have grown while traditional public school districts have contracted. The Opportunity Scholarship, NC’s voucher program, has nine times the number of students it did in its inception year of 2013.

More constituents have voted with their feet, choosing alternatives to traditional public schools, like charters or private schools using the Opportunity Scholarship. Their record of student success and prudent spending speaks for itself. Hopefully, legislators will learn from the charter example that money well spent is far more valuable to students than a poorly managed influx of cash.

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