Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Story of the Education Dollar: No Academy Awards and No Fiscal Smoking Guns

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Story of the Education Dollar: No Academy Awards and No Fiscal Smoking Guns

Article excerpt

The substantial investment the country has made in its public education system needs to be restructured so that it "pays off" in terms of large increases in student achievement over the next two decades, the authors maintain. The long-term task is to get schools to act more like producers of high levels of student achievement than like consumers of educational resources.

Everyone wants to know more about education dollars and how they are spent. Most educators and a large portion of the public believe that the country has been too frugal in providing dollars for education. Others believe that the schools have enough money - or even too much - and that they do not spend their resources wisely. Many believe that large portions of education dollars are consumed by an "administrative blob" and that most new education dollars get soaked up into higher salaries for teachers. Many educators claim that the bulk of new resources, at least in recent years, has been directed toward children who require special education.

There is no shortage of theories about how much education money there is or about how it is being used. But there is little understanding of basic facts - on the part of educators, policy makers, or the general public. Our goal in this article is to lay out some of these basic facts about the education dollar in order to begin to create a common understanding of the level and uses of education funding. Only then can we turn to the important and much more complex topic of how to restructure the use of resources to produce higher levels of student achievement.

For the past five years, the Finance Center of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) has been conducting a multifaceted study of the education dollar - where it comes from, how it is distributed, and how it is used by districts and schools. Our findings support some of the common theories and dispute others.

We have analyzed spending patterns across the 50 states using state-level data;[1] we have examined spending and staffing patterns at the district and school levels using data from the "schools and staffing survey" and district fiscal data from the Census of Governments;[2] and we have gone over detailed studies of staffing patterns, of expenditures by function and program, and of the use of dollars across curriculum content areas at the school level in California, Florida, and New York.[3] This article is based primarily on this research. We are also studying the same issues in Minnesota.[4] And, during the time of our research, several other studies of these same issues were published, and we include those results in our discussion.[5]

The major findings are that, while there has been a considerable national investment in public education during the 20th century, the funds have been distributed unfairly and used ineffectively. However many dollars may have been allocated, they do not seem to have been used particularly wisely: no fiscal academy awards. Nor have the dollars been squandered: no fiscal smoking guns.

The largest portion of increased spending on education has been used to hire more teachers; more teachers are used both to reduce class size and to provide more out-of-classroom services, primarily "pull-out" instruction for handicapped and low-achieving students. Neither strategy has boosted student achievement very much. Another portion of the additional funds has been used to increase teacher salaries, but these dollars have not been used strategically to enhance teachers, professional expertise.[6] Recently, large portions of increased revenues in some states have been used to expand special education services. Meanwhile, expenditures for administration are modest on average, even in the largest districts in the country. Interestingly, high-spending districts tend to spend money in the same proportions as low-spending districts (so they have even lower class sizes and higher teacher salaries), a behavior that reflects the expenditure of the ever-increasing education dollars over time (gradual declines in pupil/staff ratios and increases in average teacher salaries). …

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