High quality education doesn’t have to be expensive.
So why are public schools spending $13,185 per student?
If this money skyrocketed kids towards success and happiness, it would make sense…but this isn’t the case.
For us to understand the “why,” we must first understand the “where” – in this case, where all this money is coming from, and where on earth it’s going.
Where does public school funding come from?
Public school funding comes from a three-way split between federal, state, and local tax revenues.
While it varies state to state (and district to district), the baseline breakdown for funding is 7% federal, 47% state, and 46% local.
But this division of funding has changed over time:
As you can see, schools rely heavily on state and local resources: specifically, property taxes.
The intimate relationship between public schools and property taxes causes disparity between students of different socioeconomic classes. Depending on where you are on the map, property tax rates fluctuate. This creates disadvantages in a kid’s education far outside of their control.
For example, even at lower tax rates, high property values (more expensive homes and land) yield more property tax revenue per student. Wealthier communities will always have wealthier schools.
From there, it’s a vicious cycle: high-income families move to an area for great schools, provide more funding, and broaden the gap between low-income and high-income districts. Lower-income families looking to send their kids to a great public school are priced out of those districts, where homes can cost more than twice as much.
Dependance on property taxes to fund public schools “creates major funding gaps between wealthy and poor school districts, discriminates against children in low-income areas, and violates the state constitution.”
But here’s the thing.
The inequality within the system is terrible…but overfunding is not the answer. Remember: high quality education doesn’t have to be expensive. Money does not buy improvement.
The system is broken. Quite frankly, it’s damaging. And it’s horribly unnecessary.
Outside of demographics, performative measures like test scores also play a large role in funding; and as we know, the big problem with standardized testing is that it is detrimental for teachers and students alike, crushing desires to teach and learn.
Essentially, the system of public school funding has consistently been dubbed as “inadequate and inequitable” for a reason.
The good news is that alternative schooling models allow us to undercut this system of funding and inequality to avoid this mess to begin with.
But we’ll get into that soon. First, we need to break down where all this money ($666.9 billion, annually) is being spent.
Where does public school funding go?
Now that we (roughly) understand where public school funding comes from…surely, we can count on schools to put this funding to good use, right?
Here’s a glance into the current state of K-12 debt ($504,612,438,000 anyone? That’s a figure that would overwhelm the average elementary student this money was spent to educate). And here’s a look at the steadily declining salary of teachers.
School funding is divided by student, allocating a certain dollar amount per kid.
As I said earlier, the spending per student ranges drastically across the country, coming to a national average of $13,185 per kid.
And overall, public school expenditures equal $666.9 billion.
The kicker: costs and expenditures are climbing, but kids’ achievement is not.
Spending is at an all-time high and performance is stagnant. Clearly, that $666.9 billion isn’t making for better education.
So, what is it doing? How is it being used?
Funds for public schools are divided into instructional spending and non instructional spending.
Instructional spending equates to things like textbooks, classroom materials, teacher salaries, field trips, and athletics.
Non instructional spending is geared towards administrative salaries, building maintenance, food services, and transportation.
These categories are broad and vague for a reason. It becomes difficult to track exactly how the money is being used…and the reality is that the administration receives the bulk of it.
It is a self-feeding system. And regardless of incentivization around test scores, it’s clear that improving the outcomes of its students is not necessary for its continuation. In terms of cost-to-outcome ratios, the system is getting measurably worse on a yearly basis – not better.
If the system was a private business, it would be fast on the road to failure.
Surely there must be better ways of doing this?
There are. The private sector is hard at work building them.
What about alternative education funding?
Schools thrive when divorced from bureaucracy.
Recently, Arizona passed HB2853, a new law allocating an approximately $7000 fund to every school-aged kid in the state – to be used for their education however their parents wish.
Described as “public funding for personalized learning,” this law is a beautiful stepping stone in helping kids discover what unique education model helps them thrive.
Ultimately, if we spend a fraction of the public school per-student budget on programs that actually work, we can deliver a phenomenal education.
For $7000/year, kids in Arizona can go to high-quality private schools, microschools, or fund elaborate homeschool experiences. Each of these has far better student outcomes than the bureaucratic public model.
Corey DeAngelis, a director of research at The American Federation for Children, has a motto:
“Fund students, not systems.”
The public school system may be broken, but when we channel our energy into funding kids (in every sense of the word – financially, emotionally, etc.) instead of broken systems, we can deliver phenomenal education outcomes for our kids.