Ask Reading Kingdom: Teachers across the country continue to strike because of education cuts, salary, and benefits. What can be done to increase funding in education?

The issue you have raised is a critical one that has profound consequences for the role that public education plays in our nation. Ironically, although money is front and center in the question, the key issues do not stem from an absence of money. Just as in medicine, the US outspends most countries in this realm. Indeed, according to Education at a Glance 2017, it spends more money educating its young people than any other nation.

The allocation of these funds, however, yields a complex and troubling picture. For example, under President George W. Bush, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation was passed with the goal of raising the low level of academic performance that has been found throughout the nation.  The law resulted in a 64% increase in federal spending for education with, unfortunately, NO improvement in academic achievement. At the same time, there has been a considerable increase in profits for the companies that produce the many tests that the law requires be steadily administered to the children nationwide.

Further, for more than a decade, the picture has become increasingly disturbing. Across the nation, state legislators have been cutting corporate and business taxes on the grounds that it will bring an economic windfall—a windfall that failed to materialize. The cuts have been achieved by sharp reductions in funds for education. As a result, public schools have been losing millions of dollars in state money which is their largest source of funding. 

The strikes that you cited have led to some progress over the past couple of years as teachers in states and cities across the nation—from West Virginia in the east to Arizona and Los Angeles in the west—have fought for better wages and better working conditions. The teachers have been able to achieve some of their goals, but the funding has not been fully restored. For example, West Virginia now spends 12% less on each pupil than it did ten years ago.  Further, the funds that have been used in meeting the teachers’ demands have not come from restoring the taxes on the wealthy.  Rather, they have come via measures such as fees on motorists that will largely hit middle and lower income households. 

Significantly, all this could change if the leadership and the citizens of the country were steadily educated to understand the price a nation pays when significant numbers of its population are poorly educated. Often issues of school equality are framed in terms of social justice (e.g., the idea  that it is morally “wrong” to not offer equal opportunity to all). Overlooked is the economic price that a society pays. As the Brookings Institute has stated, “we know that education is expensive, but poor and inadequate education for substantial numbers of our young may have public and social consequences that are even costlier… A copious body of research literature has established that poor education leads to large public and social costs in the form of lower income and economic growth, reduced tax revenues, and higher costs of public services such as health care, criminal justice, and public assistance. Therefore we can view efforts to improve educational outcomes for at-risk populations as public investments that may yield benefits considerably in excess of investment costs.”

Another dynamic in funding education also plays a key role in this troubled and troubling setting. The second major source for school funding comes from local property taxes. This enables wealthy communities to have the considerable funds needed for a quality education and poor communities to have a paucity of resources. Families from these wealthier communities do not support coming up with the funds needed to change the status quo.  Further, studies have shown that the situation is worsening as increasing numbers of families are moving to those “better” schools and leaving the schools in the cities. For example, the average low-income student in the U.S. today attends a school where two-thirds of the student body is low-income—a 28 percent increase from just a quarter century ago. 

The United States has been known for its ability to tackle and solve complex problems. For example, despite the widespread skepticism with which it was greeted, the nation was able to fulfill President Kennedy’s bold declaration in 1961 to send a man to the moon within ten years.  We need to apply the same fervor and commitment to the crisis our educational system is now facing.  At the end of World War II, the United States had an outstanding educational system—probably the best in the world. If we truly care, we can claim that status again.

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