Education Funding: It's not a liberal spin

A reader challenges: "Good liberal spin. Show me where more money equals better education." It's not just liberals who say more money is needed for education.

Seadog59 replied to my posting, Save America, save the schools, with this penetrating challenge designed to pop the bubble of ignorance that surrounds "liberals": "Good liberal spin. Show me where more money equals better education."

Glad you asked. My point was not that more money alone makes better education, rather treating students as individuals instead of interchangeableKids in school doesn’t play as well to the Bush base as war, fear and hysteria. It should. cogs within a mind-numbingly narrow holding pen for potential employees, in a well-funded—liberally funded, if you will—educational environment is the better solution for America than what we have today. But, the evidence is clear in historical statistics, even conservatives thought more money for education is better than less, it's even the answer offered by President George W. Bush.

But, I did lay the blame for much of today's problems at the feet of President Ronald Reagan, who began the choking of public services across the board, not just the schools. Let's look at the evidence. (You can find the statistics I am using, for total outlays for major public physical capital, research and development, and education here, and for composition of outlays for the conduct of education and training here).

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when the United States was responding the Sputnik launch as evidence that its educational system had failed, the percentage of gross domestic product spent by the United States on nondefense programs averaged 2.66 percent. Educational spending, as a percentage of federal outlays was 4.14 percent. When Reagan came into office, beginning in 1982, the first year his budgets took effect, through 1989, federal spending on nondefense programs fell to an average of 1.83 percent. Education fell to an average of 2.69 percent of federal spending over that same period.

So, it is true that Reagan began the under-funding of our schools. He had plenty of help from anti-tax activists, who attacked local funding, starting with Proposition 13 in California. The cost was decreasing performance of students and the resulting widening differences in income overall. The Internet carried the economy, but that and microprocessor advances were products of the lavish spending on eductiona and research in defense during the post-Sputnik era and Race to the Moon. The prosperity hangover came from our "binging" on education spending, not fiscal discipline by conservatives (who would have had nothing on which to spend the nation into record deficits if it hadn't been all that education and research in the first place).

The abject failure of education during the past 25 years has been the narrowing of curriculum due to restricted funding. Students who drop out complain there is no meaning to the basic skills they learn in school, because there is nothing (no  liberal education in the classical sense) to put it all in context.

Enter George W. Bush. What did he do? He increased educational spending, but only to improve performance on standardized tests. Generally, Bush has not increased nondefense spending, but educational spending has shot higher. During the Clinton era, when a Republican Congress restricted spending, the average share of federal spending on education was 2.86 percent. Bush, in the three years the Department of Education has published statistics, increased education to 3.56 percent of federal outlays.

So, it seems the answer for conservatives is more money, but to produce fewer skills. Granted, the spending on education during the 60s and 70s, when I was in grade school and high school, was higher, but the difference was spent on a wider array of programs that addressed the many different skills and talents that make up a complete and competitive democratic society. Today's back-to-basics education is predicated on standardized testing, as felix52 commented on my previous posting, because "Targeting a curriculum towards the tests is only required if the education is so inferior that people cannot pass the tests." Touché.

Hopefully, though the Bush Administration seems intent only to pay lip service to the idea of a crisis while really dismissing most American children as not deserving a real education, the United States is reaching a point analogous to the Sputnik crisis. Kids in school doesn't play as well to the Bush base as war, fear and hysteria. It should be the center of our family-centered agenda, because India, China and many other nations are investing heavily in their future through education—India has committed more than four percent of its GDP to universal education, levels last seen in the United States 30 years ago.

If we want to stay ahead, we have to reestablish the faith we demonstrated in our children through the 20th century, when older generations invested heavily in the next. It could happen through many mechanisms state, regional or federal, but it needs to be done somewhere and in a way that ensures democratic access to education, which private schools do not.

Instead of looking for ways to cut corners, heaving every child into the same category and testing for the sake of keeping score while drop-out rates soar, let's try to be just a bit more generous with our future, so that it can pay us back with the same reliability past generations have. As it is and has been since the 1980 election, America has been more concerned with today than tomorrow. That lack of vision, if the price we've paid for it isn't already evident enough, is destroying this nation. 

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