Public Schools Have Ample Funding, So Where Does the Money Go?

This op-ed appeared June 27, 2010 as part of WPC's monthly column by Paul Guppy in The Spokesman-Review

We often hear that if only schools had more money public education would improve. Yet funding for public education is at all-time highs. This year Washington is spending $10billion to educate a little less than 1 million students, or about $10,200 per student. Spokane schools spend more than the state average, $11,024 per student.

In fact, because of smaller families, there are more taxpayers per student today than in the past. In 1980 Seattle had more than 48,000 public schoolchildren; today it has 42,000. Spokane had over 28,000 students in 1980; today it has 27,770. Since 1980, the proportion of children has declined, as total population grew by 2 million, while inflation-adjusted education spending doubled.

Despite more funding, nearly one-third of public school students drop out. For minority students the dropout rate is 50 percent.

So why do we constantly hear about education cuts? Part of the answer is that when public officials talk about painful budget “cuts,” they are often referring to reductions in planned increases, even as total spending rises. This is especially true in education.

Some officials say Washington ranks low in education spending. They are referring to education as a percentage of Washington’s total budget. Education spending has increased, but total spending has increased faster, leaving education a smaller percentage of the whole. In 1950 defense spending was about 50 percent of the federal budget. Today it’s 12 percent. No one would say the huge growth in total federal spending means defense is now underfunded.

If schools have ample funding, where does the money go? Much of it is absorbed by central administration and personnel costs unrelated to classroom instruction. Currently only 59 cents of every education dollar reaches the classroom.

Fewer than half of Washington’s 101,700 public school employees are classroom teachers. Spokane Public Schools employs 3,087 people, one for every nine students, but only 41 percent of them are classroom teachers. Statewide, district administrators make an average of $117,000 a year in pay and benefits. In Spokane, average annual administrator pay and benefits is& $107,670.

Today’s teachers are generally well paid. Average teacher pay in Spokane, with benefits, is $81,000 for a 10-month year. That’s a good thing. Most teachers work hard and should be well paid. The problem is that union contracts forbid rewarding the best teachers and weeding out the bad ones. A great teacher receives no higher reward than his or her mediocre colleague across the hall.

Seniority, not excellence, governs the world of public schools. Union rules require that during layoffs young teachers go first, even if they are better educators than some of their tenured co-workers. Desperate school managers shed low-performing teachers by shifting them to other districts, a process known in the trade as “the dance of the lemons.” No one knows how much money is lost in this process.

The talent pool available to public education is severely limited. Most college graduates are barred from teaching in public schools. Only people holding a formal certificate are allowed to teach in the public system. Even college professors are banned from public K-12 classrooms without a special waiver.

Not so in private schools. The Legislature passed a law that allows private schools to hire any qualified professional as a teacher, creating a pool vastly larger than the one available to public schools. Managers in private education pay retention bonuses, award merit pay and tailor working conditions to hold on to the best instructors the job market has to offer. Private school teachers have the freedom to design lesson plans that best match their students, a level of professional independence unheard of in the public system.

Public schools are different from private schools. Public schools serve a much larger and more diverse population, including children with special needs. Still, public education leaders can learn important lessons from their private-sector colleagues about how to recruit top instructors and to make sure budgeted funds reach the classroom.

Public education doesn’t need more money. The people of Washington are generous in paying the taxes that fund our public schools. Giving local school leaders control over budgets, hiring and curriculum, like that enjoyed by their private-sector counterparts, will improve education and life opportunities for all children in Washington.