We can reduce school budgets and improve student achievement at the same time: 9 myths about education funding

James W. Guthrie, George W. Bush Presidential Center

Dr. James Guthrie is senior fellow director of Education Policy Studies at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas and a professor at the SMU Annette Simmons School of Education. In addition to his academic career, he has been a high school principal and elected school board member.

In a speech Nov. 19 in Louisville, Bill Gates exhorted America’s chief state school officers to focus spending on instruction and squeeze far greater efficiency out of their education budgets. “Our best chance to change budgets starts now,” he said. “Your appropriations committees will see the state school budgets and ask you to show them an easy way out. I think you can tell them, ‘There is a way out, but it’s not easy.’”

The truth is, we can reduce school budgets and simultaneously pursue high standards, but to accomplish these goals we have to dispel some pervasive myths. Here are the major ones…and the facts that refute them:

Myth: America’s schools have been underfunded for a long time – now is the worst time to cut spending further.

Fact: Schools have been riding a century-long wave of rising revenues.

Per-pupil-spending today, adjusted for inflation, is triple what it was 50 years ago. To be fair, this is a national picture that does not hold for every locality. Nor does it account for the added cost of our now including handicapped children in public schools. Still, in most places, real dollar school spending has been increasing for a long time

Myth: Class sizes are growing. Budget cuts will accelerate this process.

Fact: Virtually all past spending growth has been used to hire more teachers and reduce class size.

The pupil/professional ratio, now 14 to 1, is half its 1946 level. Despite significantly reducing class size, student achievement lags behind many international competitors (such as Japan, Germany, France, and England) with less favorable pupil/teacher ratios.

Myth: We can save a lot merely by trimming the fat and the frills.

Fact: Sadly, we cannot.

Only 20 cents of each school dollar goes to non-salary items such as utilities, supplies and transportation. Meaningful savings can only come from rethinking our employee pay policies.

Myth: If we have to trim staff, let’s protect our most experienced teachers.

Fact: Effective teachers, not experienced teachers, make a difference to students.

If staff reductions are necessary, we owe it to students to retain their most effective teachers -- who are not necessarily those with the most seniority -- as judged by value-added student gain scores. We now know that having an uninterrupted sequence of effective teachers can narrow the achievement gap between middle-class and low-income students.

Myth: Laying off teachers is a violation of the basic right to education.

Fact: Cutting ineffective teachers is a civil rights victory for students.

Budget decision-makers must realize that effective teachers and principals represent the best hope for disadvantaged students. The right of even the poorest student to receive the best teaching and leadership talent must take precedence over outworn and self-serving notions of employee seniority.

Myth: Teachers were historically underpaid, and still are.

Fact: Some teachers are underpaid, others are overpaid. The vast majority enjoys luxurious healthcare and pension plans.

Most teachers are rewarded for the years they serve and for graduate courses taken during vacations. Today we know that the link between student achievement and their teachers’ seniority and graduate-course-count is weak – if it exists at all. Tying compensation to effectiveness and eliminating raises for Master’s degrees outside a teacher’s field will improve student outcomes and yield savings. One large Southern city found that a no-Master’s-pay policy could reduce annual budgets by 5 percent.

Teacher health plans without employee contributions or co-pays do not benefit student achievement. Adjusting teacher fringes to private sector levels benefits students by taking the strain off the school budget.

Myth. Teachers of all subjects are equally valuable and should be paid equally.

Fact. Private-sector pay is calibrated to attract talent.

Physics and chemistry teachers are in high demand; physical education teachers are plentiful. Working with the market gives schools better teachers in more expensive but nationally vital subjects—and preserves scarce education funds to serve students.

Myth: Technology cannot replace good teachers

Fact: Right, but it augments good teachers, makes them more effective, and delivers new resources which benefit more students.

Digital technology already helps students who have reading and math difficulties. It can help advanced students by providing access to the best instruction in specialized areas such as physics and biology. Technology allows schools to deploy resources to more students, while paying special attention to both the weakest and the most gifted students.

Myth: It takes a superman to make these changes.

Fact: It takes leadership, common sense, and political courage.

The looming budget crisis may reveal that these resources are more abundant than we think. The quality of public and professional leadership will make the difference. As Gates said in closing:

’ …The design of our schools, the way we teach, the way we budget – has kept so much human energy locked up inside. Let’s unleash it.