Public Education Spending

The following link will take you to a report from the Texas Comptroller’s office about spending in Texas for public education–something that lots of people are talking about this coming week when the court hearing begins in the case where 70% of the state’s school districts are suing the State of Texas due to inadequate and inequitable funding:

As is typical when people who are not in education try to make interpretations and recommendations for practice, there are many obvious reasons why spending has increased over the last decade that are not even mentioned:

1.  After 9/11 every school district in America rushed to put into place security plans to protect children and employees from a terrorist attack.  Security guards, surveillance cameras, communications systems, etc. all cost money.  And, no, they do not improve student learning, but none of us wants to take a chance that something awful could happen in a school if we let our guard down.

2.  Energy prices have skyrocketed over the past decade or so, and schools are still getting the same transportation allotment as they got nearly 30 years ago.  Too, rates for electricity and natural gas have gone up to cool and heat our school buildings.

3.  The report shows major increases in interest on debts and on capital outlay.  Well, of course.  Schools all over the state badly need to be rebuilt or significantly renovated because they are really, really old, and/or because they do not include space for today’s demands–technology centers; counseling centers; parent centers; places for teachers to plan collaboratively; athletic facilities for girls (after passage of Title IX); requirements for teaching four years of science in high schools, with equipped labs; etc.  The schools in far too many communities look more like the factories where most people worked during the Industrial Revolution, but today’s schools need to look like the high-tech, collaborative environment of offices in the Knowledge Society.  The conditions of our schools say loud and clear how much we as a society value education and learning–and how much we value our children.

4.  The cost for technical staff, technology infrastructure (broadband networks, internet access, technical training for staff, hardware, software, technical support services, copy paper, printers, innovative products such as whiteboards, licensing and maintenance fees for software, PEIMS coordinators and input clerks, etc. has skyrocketed in the past two or three decades, and failure to replace or upgrade technology means we are not being as efficient as we could be, nor are children getting the access that they need.  Staff and students all require easy access to the technological tools that enable them to do their work.  Districts and schools must now also have websites that must be maintained and kept fresh; there are laws requiring the posting on those websites of many, many specific documents, requiring staff time–administrative, clerical, and technical. Many school districts, especially larger ones, have their own television stations to showcase students and staff, communicate with parents and community, and for professional development. Again, these innovations cost money for equipment, space, and expert staff.

5.  Unfunded mandates by the legislature that cost billions and then which have to be funded out of local money, cutting what is available for students’ instruction.

6.  Reporting and compliance requirements that require extra staff, extra clerical and administrative staff, and a great deal of time by everyone.

7.  Huge increases in student poverty.  In 2011-12 more than 60% of Texas students were eligible for free/reduced lunches, and Texas was the fifth highest in the nation in percent of children living in poverty.  Only Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and New Mexico were worse.  Children who live in poverty, especially when there are large concentrations of poverty in a school require significantly more money to fund the interventions and programs that they need to ensure their equal opportunity to learn.

8.  The state requires fund balances as a part of fiscal accountability–at least two months of the operating balance.  Few districts, therefore, have fund balances that exceed 20% of the current year’s M&O budget.

9.  Another big expenditure for schools is the costs involved in addressing the constantly rising expectations that the legislature sets for public schools.  Texas requires more courses (26) to graduate than any other state.  The new end-of-course tests address very rigorous standards defined as career/college readiness requirements.  Texas students take four years each of English, mathematics, science, and social studies.  Accreditation standards are raised almost every year, with higher and higher achievement and lower dropout rates required for an “Acceptable” or above rating.  New standards require new instructional materials, professional development for administrators and teachers, new technology, etc.

10.  Research verifies over and over again that money is best spent on quality teachers, small classes, preschool education, interventions for struggling learners at the earliest possible time, and challenging expectations and curriculum.  Paying teachers decently is our responsibility and paying them well would allow Texas to choose the best people in the nation to teach our kids.  Texas, however, consistently ranks in the bottom third or fourth of the states.  The state’s 22:1 cap for K-4 classrooms is a good thing, but these small classes do cost more–more teachers, more professional development, more classrooms, more sets of instructional materials, etc.  The payoffs for students, especially for young children and children who are disadvantaged, however, make the expenditures worthwhile.  Preschool, as early as age 2, is highly desirable to combat the negative effects of poverty (on cognition, behavior, and health).  Prior to recent budget cuts Texas was making great progress in serving ages 3-4 children in preschool and in implementing full-day kindergarten.  Recent cuts, however, greatly damaged those programs, and yet with our high poverty rate in Texas, they are critical not just for the children–and for the State’s future.

11.  Texas is one of the fastest growing states in the nation, and we are one of the states with increases in young people.  These statistics can predict growth in the economy too–but we have to take care of our kids.  Texas now has more than five million children enrolled in public schools–about one tenth of the enrollment in the nation!  And we ranked 49th among the states in 2010-11 in per-pupil expenditures.  The 2011 session of the legislature is the first in history that did not allocate additional monies to districts based on increased enrollments.

So–the Comptroller’s office can draw all the graphs they want, but we need to look at the whole story, and we need to compare/contrast ourselves with conditions in other states to get a realistic picture.  Given all these reasons for increases in expenditures and given the state’s status, it is really, really hard to make the case that we are spending too much on education!  Today’s schools are not the schools that many of us remember as children.  They cost more because society and technology and expectations and enrollments have changed, not because of alleged inefficiency.

Texas funding is clearly inadequate to do all that we expect schools to do–and it is also unacceptably inequitable.  –blog by Bonnie A. Lesley, Oct. 20, 2012


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