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By Amanda Litvinov with reporting by Brian Washington
School funding is a mix of federal, state, and local funding sources distributed through complex and ever-changing formulas, making it all too easy for elected leaders to use half-truths and lies to slash education budgets and divert taxpayer dollars from public schools. Pro-public education advocates can’t allow that to happen.
Don’t shy away from making the case for better school funding. Just stick to the facts.
Below, we outline four critical points about school funding, with a straightforward bottom line fact that you can use, plus tips on how to be a strong advocate for school resources.
FACT: America’s schools are not ‘flush with cash,’ though President Trump (and many others) make such claims.
Most education funding (roughly 90 percent) comes from state and local sources. But K-12 state funding since the Great Recession has failed to keep up with rising enrollments. According to research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, per pupil funding is lower today than it was in 2008 in 23 states.
Mississippi is one of those states.
“Since fiscal year 2008, state leaders have created a public education funding crisis to the tune of $1.5 billion,” says Mississippi Education Association President Joyce Helmick, who has 37 years of experience working in Mississippi classrooms.
That amount could add more than 5,000 teachers, says Helmick. “Imagine how that can help our students flourish with smaller classrooms, more reading, math, and science courses, and more arts and athletics.”
Federal education spending is stuck at pre-2007 levels. That’s bad news, because federal education programs provide states with funding to protect vulnerable populations of students—those who are from low-income families, those learning English, and those with disabilities to name only a few. Dwindling federal money puts even more pressure on state and local budgets.
The increasing reliance on local revenues exacerbates inequities, since wealthier communities can pass local levies and pay higher property taxes than communities with fewer financial resources.
Bottom line: Per-pupil funding in most states, and federal education spending, have declined to dangerously low levels. State and federal lawmakers should be held accountable.
FACT: Voucher schemes drain resources from neighborhood public schools.
To claim otherwise is outrageous.
Voucher pushers gloss over the fact that making public education money “portable”—that is, removing the average per-pupil funding for each student who receives a voucher—quickly hacks into funds needed to sustain a public school system. The per pupil average may not reflect the resources required to educate that particular student.
Here’s why: Research shows that most vouchers go to middle-class kids who already attend private schools. These students typically require fewer resources to educate than children who are living in poverty, learning English, or have special needs.
And the costs of keeping the lights on, maintaining the building and school campus, transporting kids, and keeping appropriate class sizes are costs that barely go down if a few students leave.
History teacher Jonathan Parker believes voucher diehards know full well that their schemes drain resources from public schools. He teaches at Glendale Union High School in Arizona, where Gov. Doug Ducey has drastically expanded the state’s voucher program.
“Politicians starving public schools create a self-fulfilling prophecy—programs are cut, class sizes swell, quality teachers leave, thereby concocting an artificial demand for privatization,” says Parker.
That’s precisely what President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are doing at the federal level. They will pull taxpayer dollars out of critical programs like Title I, which adds money to public schools that serve low-income kids, to coerce states to follow their agenda.
“Whatever remedies privatization offers is nothing that a properly funded public school would not also provide to all students,” says Jonathan Parker.
Bottom line: Taxpayer dollars cannot support two education systems. Diverting our money from public schools that serve all children to unaccountable private schools is reckless and wrong.
FACT: Education spending makes a difference—especially for low-income students.
Do not allow anyone to tell you that the U.S. spends too much on education.
Yes, overall U.S. education spending is on the high side among developed nations. But our rate of child poverty far exceeds almost all other countries included in such comparisons. Our schools must spend to counter the effects of poverty while many European countries and Canada, for example, alleviate those conditions through other government spending.
The good news is that the services public schools provide are working. For poor children, a 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year of their K-12 education is associated with nearly a full additional year of completed education, 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20 percent reduction in the annual incidence of poverty in adulthood (Source: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2014 and 2016).
Also: More than 30 years of research shows that smaller class sizes are better. Class size reduction is one of only four evidence-based reforms that have been proven to increase student achievement. All students benefit from individual, active attention from their teachers, which is compromised when class sizes balloon.
Bottom line: Money matters a lot in education, and it matters how it is spent.
FACT: Investing in education is one of the best ways to strengthen the economy.
Corporate tax breaks and tax cuts are a race to the bottom—a short-sighted approach to economic development, say Noah Berger and Peter Fisher of the Economic Policy Institute. Their research shows that providing expanded access to high quality education is likely the very best thing that a state government can do to bolster its long-term prosperity.
Good public schools attract businesses and produce well-prepared workers who eventually contribute to state revenues through taxes, allowing the state to keep investing in education—a cycle of success.
That’s why educators and parents support a bold proposal in the Oregon legislature that would, among other things, implement a corporate activity tax that would lower income taxes for middle and low-income individuals while raising $1.4 billion for education.
The Oregon Education Investment Initiative would reverse severe underfunding that has resulted in some of the highest class sizes in the nation. It would also add teacher mentoring and early childhood education programs.
Research by NEA shows that the initiative would bolster multiple sectors of the state’s economy, adding 23.6 thousand more jobs than forecasted for 2018, with more than two-thirds of the new jobs for non-teacher school support staff.
More state lawmakers should pursue sustainable investments in education, says Prof. Bruce D. Baker, who heads up the Education Law Center at Rutgers University.
“Equitable and adequate funding is a prerequisite for everything else,” Baker says. “No other strategies or programs or formulas are going to improve schools without sustained and stable funding.”
Bottom line: It’s time to stop giving handouts to corporations that don’t need them and invest taxpayer dollars in our students instead.
Now that you’ve brushed up on four essential facts about school funding, what can you do with this knowledge? You can share it with your networks, persuade policymakers, and, when necessary, debunk myths when you hear them. Here are a few tips for doing so:
When you’re talking school funding….
- Share how education funding affects your classroom. Personal stories help elected leaders and the public understand that students and educators feel every funding cut.
- Emphasize the return on investing in public education. State leaders should know they’ll have bragging rights for investing in neighborhood public schools.
- Connect the dots: Voucher schemes drain money from public schools. Taxpayers should not be asked to support two separate systems of education, and everyone around you should know it.
- Don’t repeat the opposition’s argument and avoid using their misleading words. Your goal should be to assert the truth and back it up without re-stating the myth. Call a voucher a voucher—not “choice,” a tax credit, or an education savings account.
- Don’t just say what doesn’t work—name the solutions as well. There are many proven ways to improve schools, such as reducing class sizes so that teachers can provide more one-on-one attention, offering a well-rounded curriculum, and increasing parental involvement. That’s how taxpayer funds should be spent.
Educators are among the most trusted members of the community. When you speak up on why public school funding matters, people will listen.