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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Funding Opinion

Four Mental Traps That Stop Schools From Getting More Bang for the Buck

By Rick Hess — September 21, 2020 4 min read
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Last Friday, Teachers College Press officially released my new volume, Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck. In it, a roster of savvy contributors explore how schools might spend funds more thoughtfully. In making sense of the takeaways, my co-editor, Brandon Wright, and I had a chance to reflect on some of the hurdles that get in the way, including things like grant restrictions, contract provisions, accountability compliance, and federal funding requirements.

Today, though, I want to talk about something a little different: the role of mindset. One of the things that has struck me over the course of three decades in education is how much efforts to rethink spending are hampered by the same, recurring cognitive traps. Here are four that I’ve seen folks stumble into time and again.

Regarding “efficiency” as a dirty word. Nobody makes hard choices when they don’t have to. I don’t care if you’re a tough-minded for-profit CEO or a cuddly nonprofit executive; nobody is eager to squeeze salaries, shut down popular but ineffective programs, or trim employees. This is why nobody ever likes “efficiency.” But the alternative is “inefficiency,” where staff, dollars, and tools aren’t doing as much good for kids as they could be. In my experience, far too many school districts are careless about deploying talent, undisciplined at the negotiating table, lax about pursuing operational efficiencies, and generally in need of a severe belt-tightening. Pressure to seek new efficiencies can push managers to tackle some of these long-ignored problems and create space to re-examine old priorities.

Adopting the “Washington Monument strategy” as a governing philosophy. During any budgetary standoff with Congress, presidents are fond of shuttering attention-getting symbols to demonstrate that they’ve already pared government to the bone and can’t possibly make additional cuts. In education, this stuff runs rampant. In May, New York City schools Chancellor Richard Carranza told the City Council, “We are cutting the bone. There is no fat to cut, no meat to cut.” He failed to mention that his district spent an extraordinary $28,900 per student in 2019, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office or that he had added 340 positions to the central bureaucracy in 2019. To be fair, Carranza may have been channeling former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who, in 2009, declared: “The vast majority of districts around the country have literally been cutting for five, six, seven years in a row. And, many of them, you know, are through, you know, fat, through flesh, and into bone.” As Duncan spoke, per-pupil spending across the land had risen 36 percent over the prior seven years.

Discomfort with the idea of opportunity cost. Much discussion of educational spending seems to rebel against the very existence of hard choices. For instance, between 1992 and 2014, real teacher salaries declined by 2 percent, even as inflation-adjusted spending grew by 27 percent. In West Virginia, for instance, site of the teacher strike that ignited “Red for Ed,” if teacher pay had simply increased at the same rate as per-pupil spending, median teacher pay would’ve been $63,000—rather than $46,000. So, why weren’t West Virginia’s teachers taking home $63,000? Well, a big reason was that, while student enrollment declined 12 percent during that period, the number of nonteaching staff grew by 10 percent. A dollar spent on administrative costs, support staff, or health-care plans can’t be spent on something else. In schooling, however, I’ve often seen that leaders or policymakers who simply point out such trade-offs promptly get attacked as callous naysayers.

Treating extant outlays as sacrosanct. This summer, I co-authored a piece in which we took a back-of-the-envelope crack at estimating just what it truly costs school systems to deliver the full-time remote learning that so many kids are getting (including devices, lunch, and building upkeep). Generously calculated, with substantial overhead, we figured it’s about 38 percent of average per-pupil spending. The piece provoked the predictable furious outcry. But what I found striking was how many of the angry responses implicitly accepted our calculations but explained that this is only because we failed to appreciate all of the other stuff that school districts are spending money on. In doing so, they kind of missed the point—that it’s worth asking why schools are spending money on things that aren’t necessary right now and whether those things are truly necessary in the first place.

In the end, these habits hinder school improvement and undercut public confidence that new funds will be spent wisely and well. They also explain how it’s possible for educators or advocates to honestly believe that we’ve just been through decades of “school disinvestment,” even as we boosted after-inflation, per-pupil spending by 20 percent between 2000 and 2016 . . . and by more since.

America spends a lot of money on schooling. Perhaps we need to spend more, at least in some places or to aid some students. But it’s obvious that those dollars will do more good, and taxpayers will be more eager to supply them, if leaders embrace the mission of getting the most bang from every buck they spend.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.