Money is not the problem, Nick
It's funny that Nicholas Kristof compares the education system to an escalator in his column in this weekend's New York Times. We know a great deal about broken escalators here in DC ? our subway system is full of them ? and the reason they're so often out of order has as much to do with bad management and absurd union rules as it does with resources. (Unsuck DC Metro had an illuminating post about this late last year.) As in public transit, so in public education: how we spend our education dollars is an important and widely ignored problem. Instead, we've mostly preferred in years past to hike tax rates and throw more money at the problem, to little effect.
Kristof tries to shame budget-cutting governors by comparing our education spending here to our commitment to education in Afghanistan. It's hard to imagine a worse comparison, given that Afghanistan spends about four percent of its meager budget on education, down precipitously from the level of spending in 1980. The US spends about 14 percent of every public dollar on education, and the level of spending has increased steadily for decades, even accounting for inflation. Kristof complains that we "scrimp at home" and "don't invest in our kids' futures," yet we spend more than half a trillion dollars annually on K-12, nearly a full trillion if you count higher ed. Accountability for how these dollars are spent should not be an after-thought, as it is in the Times column.
Certainly across-the-board cuts are not smart. Districts facing a budget shortfall of a few percent should not be firing half their librarians. But the fact that many districts routinely do so is itself proof that management and labor have worked together to make the system itself unworkable. The current budget environment is the perfect time to reengineer that system to deliver higher quality and greater flexibility.
? Chris Tessone
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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Chris Tessone was a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Director of Finance of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He has strong interests in governance and education finance, especially teacher compensation and school facilities finance.
May 16, 2013