D. Dowd Muska


Fudging the Facts on Government-School Spending

September 19, 2013

Mark Cuban loses $1 million in a failed tech-startup investment.

Cookbook sales for Giada De Laurentiis are a little light this quarter.

Miguel Cabrera’s batting average drops three points.

They’re metaphors that come to mind while reading “Most States Funding Schools Less Than Before the Recession.” Published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the paper frets about “less per-pupil funding for kindergarten through 12th grade than … six years ago -- often far less.”

Ooo -- grisly. But the center’s data are selective, and its claim that “large cuts in funding for basic education undermine a crucial building block for future prosperity” is laughable.

CBPP’s chief villains are Oklahoma and Alabama. Both reduced government-school expenditures, per pupil, by more than 20 percent between the 2008 and 2014 fiscal years. (Most states entered FY14 on July 1.) Eleven states -- including Texas, Idaho, and South Carolina -- rolled back their subsidies by between 10 and 20 percent. Not surprisingly, moonbat-heavy Maryland, Massachusetts, and Connecticut were among the states that raised education-monopoly funding during the Bush-Obama economic implosion.

Here’s another non-shocker: The mainstream media dutifully, and uncritically, transmitted the CBPP’s findings. The Topeka Capital-Journal noted that “a national survey showed” that “Kansas imposed the fourth-deepest cuts in state funding to K-12 public education since recession threw government budgets into a tailspin and fostered a school finance austerity movement.” As its city’s government-school system faces “a devastating fiscal crisis,” The Philadelphia Inquirer gushed, “a new report from a national group says most states … are spending less to educate each student than they did in 2008.” The Arizona Republic wrote that its state reduced “per pupil funding 17.2 percent since fiscal 2008 when adjusting for inflation, behind only Oklahoma and Alabama.” (“All of the individuals that suffered unnecessary cuts will have them restored,” a top Republican in the statehouse assured the newspaper.)

In the realm of reality, CBPP’s “large cuts in education spending” are illusory. “Most States Funding Schools Less Than Before the Recession” examined not expenditures overall, but revenue “distributed through states’ major education funding formulas.” Government schools pay the bills from a variety of income sources, including property taxes and grants from Uncle Sucker. In 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, local revenue covered a hefty 50 percent of spending. In the last few years, the “stimulus,” combined with property-tax hikes imposed by town/city pols, kept the money flowing to schools. Cuts were negligible. The bureau reported that fiscal 2011 “marked the first decrease in per student public education spending since [it] began collecting data on an annual basis in 1977.” The decline: a cavernous 0.4 percent.

The CBPP’s propagandists found another clever method to spin the stats. Rather than add some long-term perspective, they ignored the explosion of revenue devoted to the enrichment of “the children” during the last half-century.

Due to differences in data collection and computation, no two researchers agree on exact numbers. So let’s keep things as simple as possible, and explore K-12 expenditures, per pupil, excluding capital and interest costs, adjusted to the value of a dollar in 2010. Since 1960, the spending has been lavish:

1960                     $2,552

1970                     $4,212

1980                     $5,547

1990                     $7,556

2000                     $8,537

2010                     $10,862

The results? A recent survey of executives by the American Management Association found that “the majority of their workforce is average -- or below average -- in communication skills (62%), creativity (61%), collaboration (52%), and critical thinking (49%).”

Instead of whining about chimerical “cuts,” the CBPP could have used its number-crunching aptitude and media-manipulation prowess to spark a useful discussion of education policy.

Utah, Missouri, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado are in the front rank of student achievement, yet spend relatively small sums on their government schools. High-scoring Connecticut and Massachusetts are spendaholics. Florida, Nevada, and Mississippi fall near the back of the book-learnin’ pack, with expenditures that surely give CBPP’s staffers the vapors. Illinois, Wyoming, New York, and Rhode Island are twice cursed -- producing rather poor outcomes for their extravagant “investments.”

Does competition from private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling play a role in improving efficiency? Is teacher unionization less prevalent in states with successful education systems? What’s going on in the homes of states with high-achieving students?

No, such questions aren’t interesting to the unlimited-government movement. Liberals continue to offer the same, threadbare prescription of higher spending -- for reducing class sizes, more preschool, and boosting teacher pay. It dupes a lazy and sympathetic press. Parents and taxpayers, one hopes, are growing skeptical.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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