What We’re Buying with “Spending on Education”


In a brief post last week, the American Interest suggested that America’s increases in education spending aren’t really going toward increasing services for students:

Campaigns to increase spending on schools are always popular, and understandably so: Education ought to be a great equalizing force in our society and, in theory, an efficient way to invest in the future. The problem is that in many states, new “K-12 spending” isn’t really an investment so much as a transfer payment to retired employees of the public schools who have been promised untenable lifetime pension benefits.

I think that net’s a bit too small.  Mainly, “investments” in education are simply transfer payments to unionized teachers with lots of professional incentive to advocate for better pay and benefits and limited professional incentive to advance the actual cause of education.*  Our system creates a large funding stream for labor advocates and political agents who are actually harmed to the extent that teachers are valued for success in their vocation (because then who needs labor advocates?) but who profit by building a cult of members who focus on the victimization inherent in anybody suggesting they shouldn’t get even better pay for the unacceptable results of the system overall.

This isn’t exactly difficult to understand or to predict.  Students’ advocates are families, whose interests are narrowly targeted toward their own members and whose resources of money and time are limited, perhaps with some legitimate non-profits who have to rely on shoestring budgets collected from donors.  Advocates for teachers, as workers, get an easy funding stream directly from taxpayers and have a vast professional organization paid for with those funds.

That professional organization has, in its own interest, developed deep ties and alliances with political actors and bureaucrats and invests those resources not paid to its own employees toward putting people in public office who will tilt laws in their favor and negotiate specific contracts in a compliant way.  When it comes to it, union organizers will admit as much.

For as long as this is the case, “investing” more money “in education” only makes matters worse, as the increased tax burden gives families even fewer resources and less time to devote to advocating for their own children.


* Note that I used the term “professional incentive” to indicate the systematic incentive that is separate from teachers’ personal sense of responsibility and vocation.