Teacher strikes are spreading across the country. In states where they are still woefully underpaid like Oklahoma and Arizona it is amazing that teachers can afford to go to work at all. But teachers in California and New York, on the other hand, are not striking strictly for pay increases. They are demanding more funding for education in general and are striking on behalf of their students who, they say, are being under-served in aging buildings without up-to-date technology, proper textbooks, or fundamental teaching aides. In other words, teachers are revolting against a perennial lack of proper funding for education across the country. How can the wealthiest country in the world fail to prioritize the education of its youth, when it is that very educational system that made it the wealthiest country in the world?
Much of the national debate focuses on how best to make changes to our system of public education. How much should we rely on market forces and parental choice to drive improvement? Should we replace much of the traditional framework with privately run charter schools or by giving public funding directly to each parent in the form of vouchers? Unfortunately, little attention is being paid to how much we spend on education, and what it costs to provide the education we wish for our children.
The Actual Cost of Education
A Rutgers University study, The Real Shame of the Nation: The Causes and Consequences of Interstate Inequity in Public School Investments, reports the following:
- It can cost anywhere between $5,000 and $30,000 a year per student in order to hit average test scores.
- It costs more than three times the amount per pupil ($20k to $30k) to achieve national average outcome goals in very high poverty districts as it does in relatively low poverty districts ($5k to $10k).
- High-poverty school districts in several states fall thousands to tens of thousands of dollars short, per pupil, of funding required to reach the relatively modest goal of current national average student performance outcomes on standardized assessments. In some states—notably Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama and California—the highest poverty school districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below necessary spending levels.
The Rutgers study revealed that two factors mainly determine where a district lies along the cost spectrum: location and mix of students. Some school districts bear higher costs because they’re located in expensive regions where salaries, including those of teachers, are high. Population density matters too. The cost of educating poor children escalates faster in urban areas.
The Rutgers Study Concludes
“Even with relatively high effort, some states simply lack the capacity to close the gaps we have identified. These interstate variations speak to the need for a new and enhanced federal role in improving interstate inequality in order to advance our national interest in improved education outcomes across states. Our empirical model shows that federal funding for schools has been insufficient for improving interstate inequality. Arguably, the interstate gaps we have presented strike at the core of our national interest and call for urgent federal action.”
Distribution of Available Assets
In other words, the educational funding system based on local taxes does not properly distribute funding to where it is needed across the national education landscape. What’s needed are revised formulas that risk asking some districts to take a smaller share of school funding so needier districts can be brought up to par. State policymakers are struggling with the politics of creating funding systems that target funds to districts with the greatest challenges. The bottom line, of course, is that while education is a vital tool, using education as a pathway out of poverty is a very expensive proposition that will require a coordinated federal approach.
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