In the television comedy The Office, dim-witted boss Michael Scott remarks that he likes giving presents because they are “like this tangible thing that you can point to and say ‘Hey man, I love you this many dollars-worth.’”
Gov. Rendell and many lawmakers apply this mentality to the state budget—only they are spending other people’s money. They believe that government can solve all problems simply by opening the vault in the Treasury. Anyone proposing less spending than them doesn’t care about people.
Nowhere is this more evident than in education, with policymakers employing the hollow and tired “for the children” rhetoric. But these pseudo-righteous politicians have yet to analyze what the Department of Education is receiving and what we are getting in return.
In their state budget, House Republicans generously proposed basic education grants of $5.2 billion, bringing overall funding for schools to yet another record high. House Democrats say Republicans are heartless and that increasing spending to $5.5 billion (their proposal) is noble.
Left unmentioned is the fact that school districts have a combined total of $2.4 billion in General Fund reserves as of the end of the 2007-2008 school year. The $300 million difference between the Republicans’ and Democrats’ proposals is roughly one-eighth the level of money schools have in reserve but are not spending on the kids.
Advocates of higher spending also don’t mention that since 1986, per-pupil spending has increased 364 percent (inflation was only 141 percent). One might think that with the vast increase in education funding, student achievement would also have dramatically improved. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Average SAT scores have dropped since 1986. In 2007-08, 60 percent of black males in Pennsylvania didn’t graduate high school, and almost half of high-school juniors weren’t proficient in math (but graduated anyway).
The spending mentality is supported only by a misinformed public. A recent Hoover Institution survey of voters on education spending and teachers’ salaries found that, on average, respondents believed public schools spent $8,000 less per-pupil than they actually do. When participants were informed of the actual levels of education spending, support for spending increases declined. Being “for the kids” doesn’t mean unlimited spending on public schools with no accountability.
If policymakers really cared about the children, they would repeal prevailing wage laws, which drive up the cost of school construction by about 20 percent. A Commonwealth Foundation report, Edifice Complex: Where has all the Money Gone, revealed that construction was the fastest growing expenditure by school districts. Most troubling, higher-spending districts spent a increasing proportion of their funding on construction and debt.
And if lawmakers really “cared,” they would empower children by expanding school choice rather than working to contract it. Almost 400,000 Pennsylvania students exercise school choice by opting out of the district-run monopoly, giving them a better, safer, and less expensive education.
Unfortunately, union bosses oppose these and other policies that would improve education. Until children begin donating the amount of money to politicians that Big Labor does, politicians will continue to exhibit only superficial concern for them by spending evermore money, with no accountability for their progress.
Jason Statler is a Research Fellow and Nathan A. Benefield is Director of Policy Research with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.