A Little Context Needed for Complaints about School Revenue Shortfalls



By 09/10/2009

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As Paul Peterson noted in his recent op-ed in the New York Post, “Since 1960, the per-pupil cost of public schooling has risen by 3½ times in real-dollar terms.”  And yet, as this year’s Education Next survey revealed, the general public is woefully—comically, even — uninformed as to how much is spent on K-12 public education and, by extension, how much that spending has grown.

Why would this be the case?  No mystery, really.  Education reporters, even at elite newspapers, rarely provide solid background information about school spending, the kind of contextual information that a much smaller audience gets from articles by scholars such as William Howell, Martin West, Paul Peterson, Rick Hanushek, and others. A case in point is Sam Dillon’s New York Times piece, “Schools Aided by Stimulus Money Still Facing Cuts,” which appeared on Labor Day.

Dillon writes, rather breathlessly, “Children are returning to classrooms across the nation during one of the most tumultuous periods in American education…”

Wow.  “One of the most tumultuous periods in American education…”?   Dillon justifies this claim by saying (emphasis added) that “many thousands of teachers and other school workers — no one yet knows how many — were laid off in dozens of states because of plummeting state and local revenue.  Many were hired back, thanks in part to $100 billion in federal stimulus money…In those [states] where budget deficits have been manageable, stimulus money largely replaced plunging taxpayer revenues for schools.”

Dillon’s piece thus echoes a long-running media template, i.e., schools face fiscal shortfalls, tight budgets, dwindling resources, blah, blah, blah, blah.  However, apart from isolated periods when real growth has been limited, over time the data are clear:  K-12 schools have continually received major infusions of new public funds.  Neither Dillon nor most of his colleagues on the education beat explain to readers that budget constraints in any given year pale when compared to the overall trend of increasing school spending.  Thus, it has become conventional wisdom among mainstream Americans that K-12 schools are underfinanced.

Context is everything.  What is omitted from articles like Dillon’s often is just as important as what is provided.




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