K-12: The Mo’ Money Drumbeat Plays On

by James A. Bacon

The Richmond Times-Dispatch has posted a front-page story today exploring all the reasons why Virginia needs to increase its K-12 education spending. Student achievement on standardized tests are declining. School facilities are crumbling. Racial/ethnic disparities persist. And then this factoid: State inflation-adjusted spending per student is 8% lower than before the Great Recession. Mo’ money is needed for reading specialists. Mo’ money for smaller class sizes. Mo money for schools with low-income students. Mo’ money for teacher pay. Mo’ money for English-as-Second-Language students. Mo’ money for everything.

The article quotes spending advocates as arguing that even the $1.2 billion in added biennial funding recommended by Governor Ralph Northam is not enough to meet K-12’s voracious needs. Says Caroline County teacher Rachel Levy: “The governor’s budget proposal for education is a step in the right direction, but unfortunately, it’s not sufficient.”

Northam comes across as the voice of fiscal reason. “Would we like to do more?” he is quoted as saying. “Absolutely. But we have to live within our means. Education will continue to be a top priority for us, but you can’t make up in just one year.”

Nary a dissenting voice was seen. The article contained not one hint of a whisper of a suggestion that maybe $1.2 billion was excessive in any way, or that there might be other ways to view the educational budget. The debate is entirely between the moderate Left and the far Left.

There are, in fact, other ways to look at the educational spending budget. You just won’t read or hear about them in the news coverage of the RTD, the Washington Post, Virginian-Pilot, Roanoke Times, Virginia Public Media, the Associated Press, or any other outlet of Virginia’s established media, all of which, with rare exceptions, have been captured by the progressive Left and make next to zero effort to report conservative perspectives.

Here are some quick-and-dirty thoughts inspired by the RTD piecc.

Want to improve educational outcomes? A collaboration of school districts in Southwest Virginia, the Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP), has bucked statewide trends and improved Standards of Learning test scores by using metrics to identify best educational practices and then sharing those best practices. The cost of the program, funded entirely by participating school systems, is a decimal point of a percent of what Northam is asking for. I have yet to see any acknowledgement by the Virginia Board of Education, Northam, or the media of this program’s success.

About that 8%-less-spending-than-before-the-recession factoid… That figure, touted by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis (CI), refers to state spending per student. Consumers of that data point are left to infer that schools generally are spending 8% less per student. But is that true? Local and federal governments also contribute to K-12 spending. Are they, too, 8% lower? CI doesn’t tell us that number, and the RTD doesn’t ask. Why the silence? One logical explanation is that a total per-pupil spending figure would undermine the case for billions more in educational boodle.

According to a June 1, 2018, article in Governing, based on national FY 2016 figures, state contributions account for 47.4% of K-12 revenue, localities 44.5% and the federal government 8.1%. When you add all revenue sources, nationally, inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending had increased from $11,189 in 2007 (the year before the recession) to $11,762 in 2016. It would be useful to know if the Virginia numbers follow a similar pattern. Failure to tell the whole story amounts to intellectual dishonesty.

Update: Chris Braunlich, president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy (a conservative think tank), cites VDOE data indicating the total per student funding has increased from $11,037 in FY 2007 to $12,171 in FY 2017. Inflation over that same period was 15.7 percent. The implication is that total adjusted funding lagged by almost 5.0% since 2007 — a real decline, but less than the commonly cited CI figure.

How is the money spent? Once upon a time, back when Virginia Republicans showed some chutzpah, they focused on how much money was spent in the classroom as opposed to money spent on “support” and “administration.”

That same article in Governing breaks down various spending categories, including “Instruction Per Pupil.” In FY 2016, general and school administrative spending in Virginia amounted to $862 per student — up $38 from two years previously. Why the increase?

The FY 2016 number compared to a benchmark of only $599 in Arizona and Utah (and $3,707 on the other extreme in Washington, D.C.) How does spending on administrative overhead vary within Virginia? How much administrative overhead is really needed? Has anyone even asked that question?

There are many other ways to slice and dice the data in the hunt for ways to improve educational outcomes without spending more money. There is no visible evidence, however, that the Northam administration has looked for efficiencies and savings. Neither, from what I have seen, has the Commonwealth Institute, nor has any mainstream media outlet. The answer to Virginia’s K-12 deficiencies always comes down to mo’ money.