“Education Spending” Not Always for Education


It sure has seemed like a lot of people calling for more money in Rhode Island education, lately, are not actually Rhode Island educators, so this Wall Street Journal story out of Arizona caught my attention:

Reviewing several poor options, the governor’s office noticed something curious about the results of the 2000 tax increase. Education spending had gone up 41%, but the share of funds eaten by non-classroom expenses, such as plant operations and student support services, had grown every year for the past nine. The state auditor’s office calculated that in 2013 Arizona spent only 54% of school funds in the classroom, compared with 61% nationwide. Several academic studies have shown a direct correlation between that figure and student achievement, so it’s no surprise that Arizona ranks near the bottom in educational success, too.

And so, Republican Governor Doug Ducey came up with a diabolical plan:

Providing more resources to teachers and students is popular with many voters; paying higher taxes to hire district paper-shufflers is not. So Gov. Ducey came up with a clever plan to draw $2 billion over a decade from the state trust lands—a constitutional set-aside, established at statehood to promote public education, that currently holds about 9 million acres and more than $5 billion. The governor wanted to put that additional money directly into the classroom, rather than funnel it through layers of bureaucrats. Even with this outflow, the governor’s estimates showed, the trust would continue to grow in the long term, and its value would be higher in five years than today.

More money for schools with no new taxes: What’s not to like? A lot, apparently. Mr. Ducey’s plan disrupted the usual coalition of teachers unions and public school districts, leading some in the K-12 establishment—those administrators and union officials who have a way of soaking up dollars while doing little for students—to take the unfamiliar position of objecting to new education funding.

Keep an eye out for this dynamic and the puzzle begins to come together.  A Massachusetts teacher of my acquaintance recently left the profession for a related occupation in human services, even though it will probably mean less money.  In keeping with other things I’ve heard from teachers, her complaint wasn’t her pay or a lack of resources, but professional restrictions and smothering paperwork requirements.

Such things are inevitably produced by administrators and other “non-classroom” professionals.  Simply pouring more money into a broken, poorly conceived education system tends to create more opportunity to siphon dollars away for this or that professional service to make administrators’ lives easier and make it appear that they’re doing something, while what they’re doing — evaluating the aforementioned paperwork, for example, or developing fancy new standardized tests — may actually prove to be detrimental to what goes on in the classroom.