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Is public education causing inflation?
All those stimulus dollars have to get spent on something.
Every spring, principals in my district get an email that basically says, “Hey, the deadline for purchasing goods or services is coming, so spend by then — or else.”
The “or else” refers to the fact that unspent dollars disappear, forfeited to…somewhere. So most principals scramble to spend them.
In normal times, my school, with just over 500 students, usually has two or three thousand dollars remaining in the weeks preceding the deadline. After buying staples like copy paper and actual staples, we usually give each grade a few hundred dollars to spend on books or instructional resources. One year we held a contest and spent the money on a complete classroom makeover for a teacher.
This year, though, was different. Instead of a few thousand dollars to spend in a matter of weeks, I had almost $90,000.
Those dollars were a direct result of the federal stimulus that school districts like ours received. Over the course of three stimulus packages, public schools were allocated almost $200 billion dollars.
And let me be clear: those dollars were and are a wise and necessary investment. We chronically underfund education relative to other countries, and while one-time injections are limited in scope, they’re better than nothing.
In addition to district-wide investments in school infrastructure, those dollars helped fund extra staff and all the covid-relate expenses, allowed us to replace about half the vintage iMacs in our computer lab, upgrade our recess equipment, purchase curriculum materials for special education students, English-language learners, and buy enough calculators and headphones to account for the beating they take each day.
Still, that’s a lot of dollars to spend in such a short amount of time. And we’re just one school. I imagine across the country many administrators at the school and district level found themselves in a similarly good predicament: buy new stuff or forfeit those dollars for good.
I’m not an economist, but the inflationary cause of “too many dollars chasing too few goods” seems especially relevant here. Economists call this phenomenon “demand-pull” inflation.
And while there’s much talk of the individual $1400 stimulus checks causing inflation, there seems to be little talk of the institutional purchasing, particularly by government agencies, that’s driving supply shortages and pulling prices higher and higher.
Of the $189 billion sent to states to help public schools, a sizable chunk of it has been spent according to this federal dashboard. That’s billions of unexpected dollars chasing technology and infrastructure upgrades — all critical and important investments — in a short period of time.
To be clear, public education isn’t alone in increasing the demand for goods. Just today, The Inquirer reported that a $30 million bump in the Philadelphia Police Department’s budget “includes nearly $3 million to upgrade police cell phones and laptops with applications that aid investigations.” That’s a lot of new phones and computers.
Again, I’m no economist. And I’m hopeful that inflation wanes as some of these stimulus dollars flow through the economy. I’m also hoping that our commitment to investing in public education doesn’t wane with it.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.