Monday Special! Thoughts on Freddie deBoer's claims on education spending
A friend sent me this post by Freddie deBoer (another Substack blog (newsletter?)) on education spending and asked my thoughts. It’s a dense post with a lot of claims that seemed incongruent, so I had to read it several times and chase down links to verify them. It seems like he subsequently added a note clarifying that the title and the post didn’t align well. Anyhow, I thought I’d give some perspective, both as a principal who’s charged with spending a multimillion-dollar budget and as a person who likes reading about education policy.
CLAIM: deBoer’s basic thesis is that spending isn’t the solution to our public education woes. He writes, “In the intervening decades this view [that spending isn’t the solution] has become the conventional wisdom. But lately, there’s been a growing sense that it’s wrong.”
THOUGHTS: I’ve worked in public education for 17 years, and I’ve never thought this was conventional wisdom. Every school I’ve worked in — 5 directly and dozens indirectly — could have benefitted from either more physical resources, more staff, or an improved physical plant — or all of the above. I’m also not sure where “the growing sense that it’s wrong” comes from, either. deBoer could certainly be right about both claims, it just hasn’t been my experience and, without citations, I can’t verify it.
CLAIM: We’re “spending as much as we ever have.” deBoer refutes the idea that we are “defunding” education by linking to educationdata.org’s page on education spending.
THOUGHTS: This is misleading. Scroll down a bit on the page he links and you’ll see the graph below, which shows inflation-adjusted public ed spending mostly unchanged over a ten-year period that also saw solid GDP growth. Also, public education spending is far outpaced by GDP growth. Per their data, GDP grows 71.6% faster than public education budgets. One might argue that we’re not funding public education adequately to keep pace with a rapidly growing and changing economy. Also of note: the U.S. ranks 12th among OECD members in spending as a percentage of GDP and we don’t meet UNESCO’s threshold of 15% of total public spending.
CLAIM: “It’s typical for left-leaning people to lament that poor districts are broadly underfunded relative to others, but it’s hard to justify this belief.”
THOUGHTS: It’s not hard to justify this belief. First, “poor districts” would be underfunded by definition. Assuming he means “poorer communities,” it’s still not hard to justify this. There’s a lawsuit in Pennsylvania right now alleging this. There’s also PA statewide data that shows many wealthier communities, like Lower Merion, Council Rock, or Neshaminy, outspending poorer communities like Philadelphia and Chester.
CLAIM: “…Blacker and poorer schools receive more per-pupil funding than whiter and richer schools. Sosina and Weathers 2019: “On average, both Black and Latinx total per pupil expenditures exceed White total per pupil expenditures by $229.53 and $126.15, respectively.”
THOUGHTS: This is one of the bolder and more controversial claims deBoer makes. But follow his above-linked citation, and it’s clear the authors of the study would want more context on that claim. Here’s a quote from their abstract: The authors find that when Black students are increasingly concentrated in separate school districts from White students in the same state, total revenue shifts in a way that disfavors the typical Black student’s district, even after controlling for racial differences in poverty. Here’s another quote from that research: A growing body of literature has also found evidence that levels of spending matter for student outcomes. That’s the exact opposite of what deBoer is arguing in his post. The report links to several such studies, including this one, showing improvement in graduation rates in Kentucky after school finance was improved in poorer communities.
CLAIM: DC is a “great sadness,” and lots of spending there has resulted in dismal performance.
THOUGHTS: The data set he links uses NAEP scores from 2003-04, which seems far too dated to draw present conclusions. While the linked analysis of said data even states “higher funding tends to result in higher test scores,” it’s probably more important to note that in the most recent NAEP data, DC crushed it.
Absent from deBoer’s post is any discussion on the costs associated with education infrastructure, often one of the biggest expenses in urban school districts with aging buildings. Much of that spending is financed through debt, which adds even more fiscal burdens to these districts. Here’s an excellent NY Times essay on that topic, and another blog written by a Philadelphia-area professor. The School District of Philadelphia, for example, will spend nearly 9% of its FY21-22 budget on debt management. Of the $2.1 billion it spends directly on schools, just over 15% is dedicated to facilities. He also leaves out the costs associated with school personnel. The vast majority of public education spending — somewhere around 75% — is spent on humans. Urban districts, for example, often have to pay higher salaries to stay competitive and attract teachers to more-challenging working conditions. They also face higher facilities’ costs, due to aging infrastructure and a competitive real estate market.
deBoer’s post makes some interesting points and acknowledges the complexity of the issue, and I felt compelled to respond to it. I’m all for taxpayers deserving a better return on their investment—that’s part of the reason I work in public education and write about it here—and the idea that investing in public education can’t alleviate some of our challenges is reductive and short-sighted. You can read my previous post on school budgeting here.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.