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Is the golden age of education spending finally over?

As America starts to grapple with its out-of-control spending habits, we as a nation really should reckon with our education costs, says Andrew Rotherham for Time. Few federal education programs were targeted by President Obama’s deficit-reduction commission, but that’s because most school funding comes from the state and local levels. And that’s where the big-time money problem is. According to a report issued jointly last week by the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers, when federal stimulus funds run out in 2011, states – and, by extension, schools – will tumble off a fiscal cliff, and even an economic upturn won’t bring state funding back up to where it was a few years ago. The problem, however, is not just the struggling economy. In 1970 America spent about $228 billion in today’s dollars on public schools. In 2007 that figure was $583 billion. True, some of the increase can be traced back to growing enrollments, better programs, and improved services for special-education and other students, but much of the increase is just a lot of spending without a lot to show for it. And given all the various pressures on state budgets (including our aging population, health care costs and the substantial obligations states and school districts owe for pensions and benefits), the golden age of school spending is likely coming to an end. One of the big problems with reforming education spending is that school districts are opaque and often deliberately confusing about how they’re using their dollars. When education analyst Adam Schaeffer recently looked at a sample of school districts from all over the country, he found their actual spending was, on average, 44% more than the officially stated amount. Items such as capital costs, meaning buildings and renovations, frequently are considered off-budget so that they are not reflected in the per-pupil spending school districts and states report publicly. Likewise, calculations of how much money is spent at each school often do not include teacher salaries, which account for the majority of spending. These practices further mask the ridiculous spending inequities that exist within many states, leaving poor students – who need more resources – with less than the wealthier kids nearby…

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