Hard times are here for schools

 Public schools will have to learn how to do more with less, concludes an Education Next analysis.

In California and Washington, bad budget cutting has already begun. Governors in these two states have acquiesced to employee demands and have protected educator jobs at the expense of students’ time to learn.

 Inflation-adjusted per-pupil school spending has increased over the last century by, on average, 2.3 percent per year,” write James Guthrie and Elizabeth Ettema. As a result, the U.S. spends more per pupil than every country except Switzerland. Most of the spending increases have gone to hiring more school employees.

School productivity — brains for the buck — “has declined dramatically.”

While waiting for technology to extend teachers’ effectiveness — which could be a long wait — schools need to stop wasting money, they write. 

States and districts can discontinue costly practices that have not been shown to enhance student achievement, including paying educators for out-of-field master’s degrees and salary premiums for experience; following “last in, first out” personnel provisions; relying on regular classroom instructional aides; and adhering to mandated limits on class size. Regulations that mandate inefficiency, such as legislatively precluding outsourcing, requiring intergovernmental grants to “supplement not supplant” existing spending, and prohibiting end-of-budget year surplus carryover, can also be revised to encourage smarter spending.

. . . states and districts can adopt strategies that foster efficiency at both the school and district level, such as adopting “activity-based cost” (ABC) accounting; empowering principals as school-level CEOs; adopting performance-based dollar distribution formulas and school-level financial budgeting; centralizing health insurance at the state level; and outsourcing operational services where proven to save money.

Fiscal austerity is the new normal, they conclude.

About Joanne


  1. Education has always been given a low priority here in the U.S. because, as Isaac Asimov said, we have a base anti-intellectual culture (he’s a ‘nerd’, a ‘geek’, etc.) And it’s only getting worse. I expect my grandkids to be living in a Third World USA at this rate – if they’re even living here by then.

    • Sorry us anti-intellectual Americans don’t come up to your stratospheric standards most of us having just fallen off the turnip truck but I’m just wondering where, given this dismal future you foresee, you or your grandkids plan to go? What nation’s bracingly pro-intellectual culture recommends itself to you?

      As EB has already pointed out America’s anti-intellectual bias doesn’t seem to have prevented that most sincere of gestures, a check that clears.

      Yup, we spend more then almost any other nation on education and have a higher education system of sufficient quality that many nations send their best and brightest here to be education. Apparently, having a higher education system of that quality is not incompatible with an anti-intellectual culture although you might tend to think it would be.

      You do seem to have stumbled onto one factor that diminishes the value of all that money we spend – too many administrators.

      If you could come up with a reason why we do that you might be on your way to actually understanding something about the shortcomings of American public education.

      • Canada’s not so bad – and the average person is now wealthier than the average American. (On that last point, they have gone from “the nation that didn’t have a real estate bubble” to “the nation that is experiencing a real estate bubble”, so that could change. But really, Canada’s a pretty nice place. So is England. I like any number of countries in Europe, but for the language barrier….

        Incidentally, a lot of nations that used to send top students to the U.S. now have educational institutions at home that serve their top students. It’s a trend that some top U.S. schools are trying to address through international partnerships and campuses.

        I’m not thrilled with expenditures on administration in pretty much any setting, including education, but I would like to know what you’re looking at that would substantiate the idea that “too many administrators” are the root cause of education budget problems. Do you have some type of international comparison of administrative expenses in education that we could look at?

        • No, a lot of nations aren’t sending top students to their own, home-grown educational institutions. They’re sending them to U.S. colleges – http://tinyurl.com/btqtsx5 – and they probably will for the forseeable future. Why should they spend lots of money for quite a long time to create their own institutions of higher learning when they can get the work done on a case-by-case basis right now?

          Nice try though.

          Also, nice try misrepresenting what I wrote about administrative overhead.

        • North of 49th says:

          Thanks, Aaron, but your statements are a little bit misleading. The reason “average” Canadians appear “wealthier” than average Americans is because the income disparities in Canada are significantly less overall than in the U.S. As for the “real estate bubble,” while real estate prices are either stable or rising, the situation is nothing like that bubble in the U.S. — mortgage rules are much tighter, the banking system is considered to be one of the safest in the world, and the strong buying is fueled by limited supply , greater demand and by lower interest rates. The economy is stronger overall than in the U.S. despite economic challenges globally which of course Canada cannot escape. Pierre Trudeau famously said that being next door to the U.S. was like sharing a bed with an elephant; one is definitely affected when the elephant rolls over or sneezes.

          As to college issues, Canada has always had some top-flight universities that regularly attract U.S. students, and have for decades; fewer Canadians head south, but this reflects the lower university attendance rate and greater interest in community colleges here.. The latter have an exceedingly good record in training and placing students into high-paying careers, especially in technical fields.

          Private and homeschooling are much less popular here as well, for reasons not that clear to me. We spend on average much less per pupil in K-12 and get much better outcomes, again for reasons one can only speculate upon. But you’re right, Canada is a pretty nice place. And we speak English, eh?

          Thanks for the heads up.

  2. And yet we spend more per pupil than any country except Switzerland, and the rate of increase for education expenditures over the past forty years has far exceeded the rate of increase in the school-aged population and of the rate of inflation. Go figure.

    • That’s because most of that money goes towards administrators, special interests (education fad programs that don’t work), and Special Ed (I read somewhere that somewhere in the range of 70% of student money is spent on only 10% of the students – the Special Ed students.)

  3. I’ve been saying this for years in the public education arena, but it doesn’t make me many friends among politicos that I know.

    The old adage ‘spend more money’ is a mantra that has been repeated…remember the 2 BILLION dollar boondoggle in Kansas City where the schools had everything, and student success was less than when the federal court mandate started.

    Utah spends far less than most western states, and gets better results…

    Anyone want to take a guess why?

  4. It’s pretty easy to see that more money does not correlate with smarter students. These students still graduate, however, and go on to become the next generation of teachers.

    A friend of mine’s kid came home all worried a while back, because their teacher had scared them with the idea that the northern polar cap was about to melt and raise the sea level all over the world, drowning many people. You know, the same way that when the ice melts in a full glass of ice water, the water pours out on the table…

    Shang Tsung, above, is correct. Lots of people care about the educational system, and give it lots of money, but very few seem to care about actual students actually learning anything. The idea that an education was a goal in itself probably breathed its last breath around the early 90s. It’s not just the fault of the educators, it’s the fault of our collective culture. We value status far more than learning or education.

    • SuperSub says:

      Well, the shift against actual learning began when politicians and the courts stripped the authority of the individuals best qualified to make educational decisions – the teacher.
      Knew an old principal that used to say that in a classroom the teacher is the King or Queen. He’d always ask for permission to come into a room and always apologize for any sort of interruption. Now we’re no more than serfs, told to work our land to provide sustenance (passing students) to our landlords (state and federal governments), with district boards and administrations acting as enforcers, not leaders.

    • Smarter students? That’s not something schools can change. Education can make you a more disciplined thinker, can provide important knowledge, and can help you make the most of your brain – but it does not make you smarter.

      Incidentally, ocean levels are not projected to rise because icebergs are melting. By way of example, have you ever climbed a mountain and found a glacier?

  5. Why can’t millionaires do more with less? Why can’t it be the new normal that companies that outsource jobs don’t get tax breaks? When 80% of Americans have only 7% of our nation’s wealth, there simply isn’t enough money left to educate the poor and middle class. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/01/02/1050385/-80-of-Americans-have-7-of-America-s-wealth-Sobering-poverty-in-America-video

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Right. That’s it. Those nasty millionaires aren’t paying their fair share. If only they paid more in taxes THEN our schools would function properly and we’d graduate a generation of rocket scientists. Yeesh.

    • How about we start collecting some taxes from the 50% of the American people who are freeloading on the rest of us? How much more “progressive” do you want the tax system to be? 50% pay no taxes at all, and over 40% get a “refund” that is nothing more than a transfer of wealth from the “rich” to the “poor”.

      • Wrong, Gahrie. The ones who don’t pay Federal income tax still pay Federal payroll taxes, often state income tax and (more relevant to this disucussion) local property tax either as homeowners or through rent payments. Plus sales tax, including special purpose sale taxes like gasoline tax, road tolls, etc.

        • You are just as wrong as I am. Many of those 40% receiving transfer payments don’t have a job, so don’t pay payroll taxes, usually don’t pay state income taxes either, live in subsidized housing, often with rent control(both of which give them breaks on property taxes) and pay their sales tax with food stamps.

          • Remember when the middle class pushed down American wages, got politicians to vote them huge tax breaks, destroyed our economy through sleazy business practices, gave themselves millions in bonuses as a reward for destroying the economy, outsourced American jobs to China in return for still more tax breaks, kept 93% of the nation’s wealth for themselves leaving almost nothing for the rest of Americans, and poured trillions into bank accounts in Switzerland and the Bahamas? Me neither. Bashing the middle class is fashionable in some circles, but it’s not the middle class that got us into this mess.

            I used to be a Republican, but when the right wing started bashing police officers and firemen they lost all of my respect.

          • SuperSub says:

            I remember that quite well. So, I’m assuming, you’re a Tea Party supporter since they seem to be the closest to your positions?

          • What a careless way to make an argument. As if all people who make too little to pay Federal income tax were unemployed or recieved TANF (do you realize how few people recieve TANF these days?). As if all people in the lower 40% get subsidized housing (very few do). As if 40% of our nation recieved food stamps and did not buy anything else except food. The proportion of people that are unemployed, recieve housing subsidy, and use food stamps, is very very small.

          • EB:

            You are the one guilty of carelessness. My list of the transfer payments people receive and use to pay all or part of their taxes was for the 40% who receive transfer payments, not the 50% who pay no income taxes. I am willing to bet that most of the people receiving those transfer payments are indeed unemployed.

            You do realize that there are 7 million fewer people working today than were working in January 2009 right?

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Payroll taxes (FICA) fund Social Security and Medicare. An individual who begins working at 18 earning $50,000 and who lives to 80 years old will, on average, take far more out of Social Security and Medicare then they contributed to in their lifetimes.

  6. Would anyone care to offer odds that the battalions of educrats will be significantly reduced? Particularly at the upper end?

  7. Crimson Wife says:

    What has been the inflation rate on general ed expenditures? Prior to 1the 970’s, only a small fraction of disabled students even received a public school education at all. When the IDEA law passed, they were guaranteed the right to a “free and appropriate” one. Spending on special ed has skyrocketed in recent decades.

    One of the biggest factors driving up special ed costs in recent years has been the autism epidemic. My district has triple the number of autistic students that it had a decade ago, even while the overall enrollment has dropped. Autistic students are incredibly expensive to educate because they require small classes with a high student:teacher ratio (my DD’s class is 1:2), and lots of related services like speech therapy, occupational therapy, and ABA.

    If we want to contain the costs of special ed, we as a society need to figure out what is causing the autism epidemic and do something to prevent future children from being affected.

    • lightly seasoned says:

      And, when comparing to other countries, remember that teacher health insurance and pensions are part of the per pupil cost in the U.S. — those socialist countries reckon those costs elsewhere.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Do they? I was under the impression that many of these countries fund pensions and medical care from taxes on a person’s income. Since the school systems pay their employee’s salaries, this would show up in per pupil spending.

  8. An “Education Next” analysis. Hm. No clear information on their website about who owns them, funds them…. So, off to SourceWatch.

    The “expenditure vs. performance” argument is risible. Joanne knows that. Education Next knows that. But who cares, right, when it makes for a good propaganda point?

    Meanwhile we’re projected to have a serious, long-term teacher shortage. Those greedy teachers have such a great deal cooked up for themselves that fewer and fewer college students have any interest in joining the profession – and the solution to that is to propagandize about how teachers get paid too much and need to settle for less? “My car needs an oil change – maybe it will work better if I let the air out of the tires.”