National Political Debate Ignores Ongoing Problems with School Budgets

The 2016-2017 school year has begun in the midst of this election season, when politicians are paying scant attention to education as a public issue. But consider these facts from the Associated Press: “About 50 million students are expected to attend public elementary and secondary schools this fall. That’s up just slightly from the 2015-2016 school year…. They’ll be taught by some 3.1 million school teachers from pre-kindergarten through high school….”

The Great Recession of 2008 is still affecting school budgets. Here is the NY Times editorial board last week: “The children entering kindergarten and first-grade this school year were not yet born when the Great Recession ended in mid-2009. Incoming high school seniors were not yet in middle school. But in many states and localities, the wounds to school budgets from recession-era cutbacks are still large, leaving schools with more students and less money.”

Today’s tax and budget policies have further diminished the lagging budgets left by the Great Recession: “The difference has at least as much to do with political priorities as financial challenges. In part, persistent shortfalls in school budgets reflect the depth of the recession and the fitful recovery… (T)hey also reflect stagnation in federal help, which accounts for nearly 10 percent of school budgets. But in states with the biggest school-budget cuts, much of the pain is self-inflicted, because they have cut income taxes in recent years, creating budget shortfalls that make it impossible to adequately finance their schools. Kansas is the most notorious for such counterproductive tax cuts; other offenders include Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. Oklahoma, in particular, is vying with its neighbor Kansas for the title of most fiscally reckless… Investment in education is crucial to improving long-term productivity; conversely, failure to invest in education portends the decline of living standards over time… The federal government could play a more constructive role in supporting the leaders and coaxing the laggards. It could offer aid to states contingent on improvements to their school budgets.”

Michael Leachman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities just published a short update on that agency’s tracking of school spending over time (in inflation-adjusted terms).  He explains that in 2014 (the most recent year for which data is available): “At least 25 states provided less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state funding for schools—per student than in 2008…. In seven states, the cuts exceeded 10 percent.” And local funding also declined in 31 states between 2008 and 2014. At the same time, “The largest federal education program, ‘Title I’ funding for high poverty schools is 4 percent below its 2008 level after adjusting for inflation.”

According to Ben Casselman’s new update from FiveThirtyEight, “The largest challenge for schools… may be longer-term: attracting teachers. Tight school budgets—and the broader pushback against public-sector payrolls in many states—have squeezed teacher salaries.”  Casselman cites a new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) about the growth in the gap between salaries for teachers and comparably educated workers in other professions.

The EPI report describes a trend that should concern us all—fewer teachers entering the profession and more teachers dropping out for other careers or retiring: “The teacher pay penalty is bigger than ever. In 2015, public school teachers’ weekly wages were 17.0 percent lower than those of comparable workers—compared with just 1.8 percent lower in 1994. This erosion of relative teacher wages has fallen more heavily on experienced teachers than on entry-level teachers… Some of the increase in the teacher wage penalty may be attributed to a trade-off between wages and benefits. Even so, teachers’ compensation (wages plus benefits) was 11.1 percent lower than that of comparable workers in 2015.” “Average weekly wages (inflation adjusted) of public-sector teachers decreased $30 per week from 1996-2015, from $1,122 to $1,092 (in 2015 dollars).  In contrast, weekly wages of all college graduates rose from $1,292 to $1,416 over this period.”

EPI describes a number of factors that contribute to a falling supply of teachers: “The supply of teachers is diminishing at every stage of the career ladder. On the front end, fewer students are entering the profession… Over the long run, employment opportunities for women have greatly expanded and thus the teaching profession can no longer rely on what was a somewhat captive labor pool.  At the same time, teachers are less satisfied and more stressed as standardized testing has been elevated as a tool for student, school, and teacher evaluations. On the back end, teachers are aging and retiring along with the workforce overall… (T)eachers who represent one of the largest occupations in the nation, have been leaving at relatively high rates, and these rates have steadily increased in recent decades. The increasing rates of attrition foster a growing instability in the teaching profession that affects classroom efficacy.”

No Child Left Behind and other test-and-punish policies of the past two decades have blamed teachers wherever students struggle even as overall fiscal support for schools has fallen and budgets in cities and rural areas have dropped behind school-district-largess in wealthy suburbs.  At the same time society has been content to deny the challenges of economic and racial segregation and their effects on children and schools and, again, to blame school teachers.  The Economic Policy Institute calls society to support and fairly compensate the 3.1 million teachers who currently staff our schools and to provide incentives that will attract fine candidates to fill their places when they retire: “An effective teacher is the most important school-based determinant of education outcomes. It is therefore crucial that school districts recruit and retain high-quality teachers… (P)roviding adequate wages and benefits is a crucial tool for attracting and keeping the teachers America’s children need.”

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