There is a constant battle going on between conservatives and liberals concerning the cost of education. The conservatives feel that our kids’ education would be better served by slashing the education budgets (while at the same time giving tax breaks to the wealthy, but that’s another subject). They point out that our K-12 education costs have tripled since 1970 (adjusted for inflation), and that privately run schools are run much less expensively than public schools. Here’s an article that explains their complaints rather well. Problem is, as with so many other issues, the conservatives are using false arguments and refuse to see the big picture.
This is not to say the conservatives are wholly wrong. Our schools are far from perfect, that much is obvious. I’ve agreed with conservatives for many years now that the NEA is too powerful, that the tenure system needs to be revamped and the schools need to be able to fire underperforming teachers. But that’s not the whole story; far from it, in fact.
Not so long ago, Dave Nalle, head of the Republican Liberty Caucus, posted a complaint that only 49% of education budgets in Texas go towards teachers’ salaries, and that the other 51% went towards administrative costs. His solution? Slash the administrations!
Now Mr. Nalle is generally reasonable and certainly intelligent, but on this one issue, what he didn’t understand, and didn’t reply to when this was pointed out, was what those administrative costs entailed in the remaining 51%:
Buses – 3%
Building construction and maintenance – 9%
Heating, cooling, lighting – 3%
Security staff and school nurse – 2%
Instructional aides and instructional supplies – 9%
State-mandated teacher training and curricular development – 3%
Lunch – 5%
Libraries – 2%
Guidance counselors, guidance materials, loan and post-secondary advancement information – 4%
Day-to-day operations, non-teacher school staff and administration – 5%
Extracurricular Activities – 3%
District-level staff to coordinate all of the above – 3%
So when the conservatives want to cut billions from the education budget, where exactly are those cuts to be made? The conservatives almost never point out exactly where the waste is! They cry, “The cost of education has tripled since 1970, but the quality of education has not; therefore the extra money spent must be wasted somehow!”
So let’s go down the list. Even adjusted for inflation, are buses as cheap to purchase and maintain as they were 40 years ago? No. What about building construction and maintenance? No. How about utilities and security staff and nurses and aides and instructional supplies (including computers we didn’t have 40 years ago)? No.
Go down the list: the costs of all these have greatly increased. That is, for the ones that existed forty years ago. The increased costs the conservatives rail about do not take into account that in the past forty years most schools have found that they need computers, and people to maintain the computers and the networks. Forty years ago, security staff were almost nonexistent, and there was usually only one school nurse as opposed to the several aides and nurses needed to take care of the severely disabled students that now attend regular school instead of being hidden at home. The reader can look at the list and imagine all the changes that have happened over the past four decades, and the increased costs they entailed. These are not some kind of strawmen in the argument, these are hard-and-fast reality.
But what about the argument that private schools are run so much more cheaply than public schools, yet often achieve better results? That, too, is a false argument. Why? Because there is no private school that does everything that every public school is required to do. Let’s look at what private schools don’t do:
- No private school has a legal mandate to provide transportation to and from school for every student within its district, and busing is not cheap!
- Very few private schools provide nurses and aides dedicated to the severely disabled children that any public school is required to educate. In fact, most private schools would turn away such students, saying that they didn’t have the resources to help them.
- Private schools, unlike public schools, can turn away children who don’t speak English. I’m sure that there are many who accept them anyway, but they don’t have to.
- Private schools (particularly religious private schools) usually don’t have to deal with anything like the range of religions and cultures that every public school is required to accept with open arms. Anyone who doesn’t think this is an issue should look at the graduating class of 2011 of the all-white private school that I attended in 1975. Guess what? It’s still all-white, despite the fact that it’s situated in a county that’s seventy-one percent black! This academy is but one of a dozen or so such totally-white (or nearly so) schools around Mississippi, and if the conservatives got their way with the voucher system, your tax dollars would go to help fund these schools which were founded by the racist Conservative Citizens Council as a reaction to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Get the picture? The public-private school costs brouhaha is a false argument because public schools are legally required to do so much more than the vast majority of private schools. But let’s not stop there! How do our educational costs stack up to other nations? Is our educational system really bankrupting our federal and state governments? No.
Examining the cost of education as a percentage of our GDP, we’re thirty-seventh on the list. Not the top. Not even in the top ten. Thirty-seventh. Here’s a more graphical view of how much we’re spending as compared to other countries. This should make it glaringly obvious that the cost of education skyrocketed not only in America, but around the entire world.
It all boils down to this: When all the factors are examined, it is obvious that America taxpayers are not spending too much on our kids’ education. Yes, there will always be some waste, just as there is in any institution that contains human beings, but it is not wise to throw out the baby with the bath water.
While spending too much money on education will never be a guarantee of a quality education on a national scale, spending too little is a virtual guarantee of an educational handicapping of our youth before they ever enter the workforce.