I’m a future educator, and I’ve recently started my internship at a local school to get practice in my field before taking on a class of my own. Amid all this controversy over Common Core and other things that I’m not going to weigh in on (at least not today), I felt that one important thing to consider is why a lot of teachers get fed up when people talk about giving us money, and when they point to how “inefficient” our spending is as it stands.
The first rule of educational spending is “Bureaucracy reigns supreme”. Obviously I’m writing from an American standpoint, so schools in other nations may have significant differences, but the US spends a lot on education relative to almost everyone else. As you can see on the neat little graph from the US Department of Education, we don’t spend astronomically more than most people, but we still spend a good deal of money.
This, naturally, should mean that we have among the best schools, according to some, and this is somewhat contentious; the testing methods used in the United States both in terms of survey size and the exact specifications of the test will vary from those used in other countries, and in particular the United States is very good about providing every last student’s information to studies, as part of No Child Left Behind, without differentiating between groups that have differing performance records (i.e. special education and gifted students).
However, performance is explicitly something I’m not writing about today, so what is my point? The American education system is in part hindered because there is a large variance in where funding comes from and how it can be used. Overwhelmingly, these funds are given from state or local governments, with federal funding being a small fraction of overall spending. Another category is covered by grants, tuition, and others, but for a lot of schools, especially public schools, this is not as much of a revenue stream as even the few federal funds.
So what’s the problem? The problem is, quite frankly, that schools can’t spend money where they need to. Categorical funding, which must be spent for specific purposes, makes up the vast majority of federal funding, and often much of the state funding. This funding may only be available to certain schools based on need, or may be issued to all schools, but the core issue with it is that it’s locked. In addition, through the vagaries of bureaucracy, a school that happens not to need a certain thing one year will have its budget shrunk unless it purchases it anyway, leading to wasted spending.
So exactly how much money is spent in categorical funding? It’s difficult to be certain, because schools reporting their budgets must do so in legalese rather than certain English, and few efforts are made to report the statistics. The amount of categorical funding differs greatly from school to school and county to county or state to state, and categorical funding can be broad (“technology”), moderately specific (“computers”), or very specific (“computers that are FOSS compliant”). Similarly, we have seen “special education”/”specific need” grants in some cases, but the important thing to remember is that all money is not equal. The idea that schools need to spend more on students with, for instance, autism, may be correct in some cases, but in others it is totally possible that a well-equipped teacher population does not need additional technological devices for integrating these students with special needs into the classroom. The degree and level to which spending will occur or is needed varies greatly; teachers who are unaware of potential resources may not acquire them at all or may overpay for things there are similar, but cheaper, alternatives to.
In addition, many of the grants are funding-based or contingent on school actions from prior years. I remember one of my professors observe that the school he taught at had its funding for English second language education slashed between years because they weren’t able to put enough money into ESL/special education to earn the grants for ESL/special education even though they were legally obligated not to decrease spending, meaning that although they couldn’t meet the needs for the next grant they had to allocate a portion of their budget to the programs that was now a significantly larger percentage of their funding. This, needless to say, is punitive rather than constructive, and does not lead to a student-friendly environment, as all the other classes increased in size due to the inability to hire new teachers.
In short, there’s not a whole lot that an individual can do that will make a difference in an institution the scale of a public school, but the next time you wonder why every student has a laptop but a school can’t do landscaping, or why a school ran out of paper in the first week of the year, remember that it’s not necessarily on account of mismanagement but rather arbitrary requirements. Toss in the fact that any good school will put the performance and well-being of its students ahead of hubris or presenting an image to the general population, and it’s important to consider that schools can be underfunded with a generous budget and not every failure is the result of an issue at the school in question.