The fault line dividing public opinion about school choice and other education reforms is spending. Proponents say we spend plenty today, with mediocre results. Opponents say the results would improve if we spent more.
The latter argument largely boils down to paying teachers better, hiring more of them, and reducing class sizes. So, what if I told you Georgia has increased school spending dramatically in recent decades without raising teachers’ salaries one cent?
That’s the damning conclusion of a new study by Ben Scafidi, an economics professor at Kennesaw State University and senior fellow at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
First, Scafidi shows the usually reported figure for per-pupil spending in Georgia, $9,020 in the 2015-16 school year, is well below the actual total of $11,031. Multiplied by the state’s 1.7 million public school students, that’s a difference of $3.5 billion between what the public is typically told we spend on education and what we actually spend. The larger figure includes capital projects, debt service and a host of smaller programs.
Interestingly, a Harvard study last year showed the public tends to underestimate the amount spent on education even more drastically than that — and that their appetite for increasing school spending drops by about one-third when told the actual, higher numbers. (Just so we’re clear, the practice of under-reporting in Georgia, and many other states, long predates that Harvard study.)
With the actual spending number established, Scafidi shows per-pupil spending in Georgia, adjusted for inflation, grew by 56 percent between 1988 and 2014 (the earliest and latest years for which he could find comparable data). And that’s largely after a sharp uptick in the 1980s, when the Quality Basic Education Act was passed.
Teachers’ salaries, however, have languished. Adjusted for inflation, the average Georgia teacher in 2014 made $26 less per year than in 1988.
It’s no wonder teachers feel they’ve been shortchanged, even though school budgets haven’t been.
The other half of the “spend more” argument, reducing class sizes, is as advertised. Scafidi shows the number of teachers grew 36 percent faster than the number of students during those years. As a result, the average Georgia teacher has two fewer students in her classroom today than a quarter-century ago.
But the larger number of teachers doesn’t explain nearly all of the higher spending. Rising even faster than the number of teachers was the number of non-teaching staff, which outpaced growth in student enrollment by 61 percent.
Scafidi estimates that, even if Georgia had maintained its rate of teacher hiring but simply kept non-staff hiring even with student growth, the savings would be at least $1 billion per year.
That $1 billion, he writes, “could have been used (among other things) to give teachers a permanent raise of almost $10,000 per year or to give $8,000 education savings accounts (ESAs) to the families of more than 135,000 students.”
Divide the money differently, and we could have reduced class sizes and given teachers a permanent, 10 percent raise and given an ESA worth several thousand dollars a year to every child in a chronically failing school.
So tell me: Why are we still talking about the amount we spend on schools, instead of how we spend it?