School leaders call for billions more in additional education aid—are they crying wolf?

As we continue to wait for school reopening plans to unfold, school leaders across the country and the national teachers’ union are repeating an all-to-familiar call for increased education spending, despite the billions in extra aid that has already been made available. In fact, they have even suggested they are ready to “keep schools shuttered if lawmakers don’t pony up,” according to Frederick Hess with the American Enterprise Institute.

In late April, superintendents of 62 big school districts wrote Congress to demand $200 billion in additional aid, warning that “dark clouds are forming on the educational horizon that will spell disaster if Congress does not intervene.” The National Education Association declared: “Congress must act now… We cannot properly reopen schools if funding is slashed.”

Hess acknowledges that the coronavirus created unanticipated expenses and upended budgets, but many of these laments about inadequate funding were occurring even before the health care crisis hit, creating a “schools that cried wolf” narrative.

The narrative that America’s schools are chronically underfunded has a hoary pedigree. As researchers Arthur Peng and Jim Guthrie observed a decade ago, “If one relies on newspaper headlines for education funding information, one might conclude that America’s schools suffer from a perpetual fiscal crisis, every year perched precariously on the brink of financial ruin, never knowing whether there will be sufficient funding to continue operating.”

Latest annual U.S. education spending numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics amount to $739 billion, or $14,439 per student. Developed countries across the globe that spend thousands of dollars less per student have already managed to reopen schools with health safety measures in place.

Given that the cry for education budget increases occurs year after year, maybe (as I discuss in my soon-to-be-released education paper) it’s less about how much money is spent and more about how it is spent.

For starters, school districts should examine what categories they are prioritizing in their budgets. According to an analysis of Census Bureau data by Teacher Pensions, employee benefits continue to take a higher and higher share of school district budgets at the expense of base salaries and wages.

These are steady, long-term trends, but they’re no less troubling. Increased spending on benefits is one reason teacher salaries have been flat, in real terms, over the last few decades. Benefits are also a less efficient use of money than salaries, since teachers value $1 in take-home pay more than they do $1 in benefit spending. Worse, much of these rising benefit costs reflect the growing burden of debt costs, not actual benefit enhancements for teachers and retirees.

Source: Teacher Pensions, U.S. Census Bureau data

There are many challenges school leaders will have to address either as a result from COVID-19 or as revealed by the virus. But too many cries over insufficient spending without being more forthright fall on deaf ears.