Is This The End Of Education Austerity?

Jeff Bryant

[From the Education Opportunity Network. Subscribe here.]

Don’t get too excited yet, but there are signs we may have finally turned a corner for the better in the war for public school financing.

Recently, government officials and politicians – from the Beltway to the heartland – have declared allegiance to do what has been, up until now, the unmentionable: Spend more money on public education.

If they’re sincere, we may be on the cusp of a historic turnaround in the politics of austerity – at least at it pertains to how we treat the nation’s youngest citizens.

Should these new intentions become reality in policy, we know who to thank for making the remarkable turnaround happen and who to chastise for not getting on the bandwagon now that it is moving forward and picking up speed.

A Way Out Of Austerity

This turnaround is important because if we really want to provide high quality education to America’s children and youth, raising our level of financial commitment is essential. What you hear from the “money doesn’t matter” crowd is merely clever conservative propaganda based on sleight-of-hand statistics.

Make no mistake: If we want to provide good schools for all kids, money matters. As The Washington Post recently reported, “Research has found that when schools have more money, they are able to give their students a better education. A new study on those who went to school during the school-finance cases a few decades ago found that those who attended districts that were affected by the rulings were more likely to stay in school through high school and college and are making more money today.”

According to a report at Vox, researchers found, “Spending more money on educating children in poor districts can dramatically change the trajectory of those children’s lives.”

The analysis found, “A 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending could make a big difference for students from poor families … The additional spending had virtually closed the high school graduation gap between poor students and their wealthier peers. High school graduation rates increased 23 percentage points for poor students, and those students attended school or college for another year on average.”

However, there’s little doubt that for years our nation has been lost in a wilderness of education miserliness. For years, states have cut education spending so much they now fund their schools less than they did before the Great Recession. As The Hechinger Report recently told us, “The most recent data, from the 2011-12 school year … show that average per-pupil spending fell 2.8 percent, to $10,667, from the previous school year. That’s the second year in a row that per-student spending fell.”

A big part of the decline is due to funding cuts from the federal government – more than 20 percent, or nearly $17 billion. But states contributed their share to the decline, too. The map included in the Hechinger article shows the vast majority of states making huge cuts to education spending while only three – Delaware, New Jersey, and Vermont – increased it to a level keeping up with inflation.

This governmental stinginess comes at the worst possible time, as Hechinger reporter Jill Barshay noted, “The United States has a higher percentage of children in poverty than other top performing countries, and many experts say that poor children need more resources to catch up to their wealthier peers. Just last month, the Southern Education Foundation calculated that poverty is increasing so much in the United States that for the first time the majority of public school students qualified for free or reduced price lunch in 2012-13. It is troubling to see the rise in poverty and a decline in education spending happen at the same time.”

But there are signs that some government officials have come to their senses.

An Obama Education Budget We Can Believe In

Leading the way in the new education good sense is the Obama administration.

The first sensible step the president is making is to declare an end to the mindless across-the-board cutbacks passed in 2013 called “sequestration,” and a pledge to include healthy increases in education spending in its new budget.

As The Washington Post’s education reporter Lindsey Layton explained, “The president is seeking $70.7 billion in discretionary funds for education, a 5 percent increase over the 2015 budget of $67.1 billion.”

Some details worth noting, by reporters from Politico:

  • Expanded access to high-quality care for more than 1.1 million additional children under age four by 2025.
  • Tax credit for 5.1 million families with children under four to cover costs of child care for 6.7 million children.
  • More than $1 billion in additional funding for Head Start and $750 million for preschool development grants, up from $500 million in 2015.
  • A $1 billion increase for Title I funding to serve disadvantaged students.
  • New investments for special education and English language learners.
  • More support for teachers “before they reach the classroom and…throughout their careers.”
  • $1 billion to expand opportunities for native youth.
  • $3 billion in STEM education and a $125 million grant competition to redesign high schools, with a goal of expanding underrepresented students’ access to STEM.
  • A free community college proposal pledging $60 billion over 10 years.
  • $200 million for a new American Technical Training Fund.

Perhaps as important as the actual dollars and cents of the matter is the rhetoric Obama used in his announcement. He declared “an end to mindless austerity,” as the Associated Press reported.

It’s clear the president is using “his ‘bully pulpit’ to push the country in a new direction,” my colleague Dave Johnson explained. “To make this dividing line even clearer, President Obama has told Congress that he will not sign a budget that does not increase spending,” Johnson noted.

“An End To Mindless Austerity”

Speaking of the “dividing line,” Capitol Hill Republicans have been quick to announce their opposition to these increases.

The Post’s Layton writes, “Republicans who control Congress seem unlikely to embrace much of an increase in spending on education.” Politico reporters agree, “The Republican-controlled Congress is likely to swat down most of the proposals.”

Yet, the political outlook for increasing education funding is now clearly adversarial, with sharp distinctions drawn, as opposed to the mutually agreed upon austerity imposed by the sequestration cuts of 2013.

As Politico reporters observe, “The budget remains an important window into the [Obama] administration’s ongoing – and shifting – priorities.” Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans seem mired in the old priorities of withholding money children need.

Those Republicans may think they are still on the smart side of political winds, but they may want to look over their shoulders at what their conservative colleagues are doing out in the states.

The New Republican Generosity

Indeed, Republican governors increasingly seem more in line with the president on education spending than with their partners inside the Beltway.

As The New York Times recently reported, “Republican governors across the nation are proposing tax increases – and backing off pledges to cut taxes – as they strike a decidedly un-Republican pose in the face of budget shortfalls and pent-up demands from constituents after years of budget cuts.”

The article cited tax increases being proposed by conservative governors in Michigan, Utah, South Carolina, South Dakota, Arizona, and elsewhere.

Because public education remains one of the top priorities for state governments – vying with health care, usually, for the number one or two spot in budgets – no doubt a large portion of these tax increases will be funneled into public schools.

In fact, one of those Republican governors, Brian Sandoval of Nevada, has already earmarked $1.1 billion of the tax increases to go to education. Florida Governor Rick Scott, after a contentious reelection race that often included criticism of his cuts to education spending, has proposed “record high education spending,” with $261 more per pupil than what’s currently being spent. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has proposed a new budget that would increase education spending by seven percent.

No doubt, Beltway conservatives are upset with what they see their conservative brothers and sisters doing in the states. The Times article notes Grover Norquist, who has pressed Republicans to sign no-tax pledges, was “annoyed” to hear about Republican governors calling for tax increases. But with the upward trend in education spending bearing down on government leaders at all levels, it’s a matter of time before cracks start to appear in the Congressional wall of austerity in Washington, DC.

There’s a reason, of course, why the Beltway crowd seems to be the last bastion of education austerity.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

Popular support for spending more on public schools has been a groundswell effort coming from the people who send their children to public schools – not education policy leaders in D.C. and elsewhere who continue to insist “money doesn’t matter” or at least never make money central to their arguments for “reform” and “accountability.”

Indeed, the education reform movement has fit hand-in-glove with austerity measures as the reform narrative of “failed schools” set the frame for politicians and policy leaders who want to cut funding to those schools.

As education research experts David C. Berliner and Gene V. Glass explain in their new book “50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education,” reform advocates inside and outside the Beltway have joined with business interests and conservative think tanks to repeat the claim “over the past four decades, the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled, while our student achievement has remained virtually flat.”

“There is simply no evidence to support the claim that academic achievement has been flat,” the authors explain, and point to the many ways that myth is supported by misinterpretations of data and outright refusal to acknowledge other important statistics.

Berliner and Glass conclude, “Despite the rants of some politicians and business leaders, we have ample evidence that money matters in education. What we do not have is evidence that the alternatives offered by these folks, particularly the extensive use of high-stakes standardized testing, do anything to produce more successful teachers or students.”

While the reform crowd has been ignoring the financial plight of our schools, a nationwide Education Spring erupted years ago and has gradually built popular momentum to increase support for public schools.

No doubt conservative Republican governors are realizing how the populist uprising that unseated Governor Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania last year has legs in their states, too. Corbett enacted significant budget cuts to schools which voters tended to view negatively, and challenger Tom Wolf capitalized on the voter anger to win.

It’s clear the wave of anti-austerity for our nations schools is breaking on Beltway shores. It may be time for government and policy leaders to either batten down the hatches and resist getting swept away, or learn how to ride the surf.

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