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What Politicians Mean When They Ask for More Education Spending

Per-student spending on K-12 education has risen steadily over the last two decades, but student test scores, and teacher salaries, are stagnant. Why hasn’t this massive increase in investment produced better teachers and better opportunity for students? The short-answer, according to a new Manhattan Institute report by Josh McGee: State and local governments have catastrophically mismanaged their teacher pension systems. The cash infusion to K-12 has been used largely to pay for irresponsible pension promises politicians made to teachers’ unions and justified to the public with shoddy accounting. From the executive summary:

Per-pupil spending on equipment, facilities, and property fell by 26% between 2000 and 2013, likely resulting in a growing backlog of expensive repairs and  replacements that will need to be made sometime down the road. Spending on instructional supplies (e.g., textbooks) declined by 10% per pupil. More than half of states (29) spent less per pupil on instructional supplies in 2013 than in 2000. […]

The vast majority of taxpayer contributions into teachers’ pension plans are now used to pay down pension debt owed for past service rather than to pay for new benefits earned by today’s teachers. As the value of this debt has increased, most current teachers have experienced stagnant salaries and reduced retirement benefits, while spending on classroom supplies, equipment, and building upkeep has declined relatively or even absolutely.

In other words, to cover benefits for retirees, states need to dig into education funds that might otherwise be used to attract and retain good teachers or buy better textbooks and build new facilities. So long as state governments are unwilling to reform the blue model pension-for-life civil service system, and so long as teachers unions continue to wield outsized influence in so many state legislatures, this pattern seems likely to continue indefinitely.

Campaigns to increase spending on schools are always popular, and understandably so: Education ought to be a great equalizing force in our society and, in theory, an efficient way to invest in the future. The problem is that in many states, new “K-12 spending” isn’t really an investment so much as a transfer payment to retired employees of the public schools who have been promised untenable lifetime pension benefits.

There is definitely room for smart new investment in K-12. But responsible reformers should make such investment conditional on an overhaul of the public sector pension and collective bargaining system. Otherwise, the public will keep paying more and more and getting nothing in return.

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  • M Snow

    This is a complicated problem with several different dimensions, but one reason student performance has stagnated is that improvements in teaching just can’t keep up with the collapse of the family, or even worse, the failure to form families in the first place.

    • LarryD

      Government run, or administered, education has proven to be terrible. I have my doubts about a government administered voucher system, the incentives for corruption would still be present, only the beneficiary would change, but government is part of the problem, and its role in education clearly needs to be reduced.

      • M Snow

        I’m not sure whether government is the problem or if the problem is just OUR government. I was a teacher for many years and have always been interested in how other countries manage their education systems. Quite a few seem to produce better student outcomes than we do, but on the other hand, they don’t face the cultural and demographic challenges of the U.S. with our large numbers of non-native language speakers and rampant family breakdown. I think we ought to give vouchers a try but I’m not particularly sanguine about the results.

        • LarryD

          Our “governing class” is corrupt. I don’t see how to clean house short of just shooting them, in mass. Until we can replace them with an honest governing class, no government solution will be anything but another opportunity for graft and embezzlement. And if we had a clean government, we’d want it to stay small so we can watch it like hawks and keep it that way.

  • jeburke

    It’s worth adding that most teachers and school administrators, despite having generous pensions, double dip. Retirement with maxed out pension benefits usually happens by age 55 or so (because most start by age 25). They take the pension, then seek new jobs as teachers or administrators. State laws against double dipping are largely useless because in so many areas, they can take jobs in nearby states (NY to NJ, CT, etc.), there are often wavers, and there are private and parochial schools.

  • Boritz

    “responsible reformers” are an enemy that has been easy to defeat with cries that they care more about the rich than they do about the children and those indespensable keepers of the future teachers who are – nobody with a conscience or a soul would question this – due much more compensation. This rebuttal of reform always works like a charm. The politicians who champion increased “education” funding while demonizing all reform and reformers win their elections, get their vision of funding approved, high five each other that they got the money for those who do so much for them in return, and sit back in self satisfaction and political success to preside over the usual lousy outcomes until the next funding cycle.

  • Beauceron

    The fundamental flaw in all of this is that on the whole our student population just isn’t as smart as earlier generations.

    That’s just a fact.

    What the education establishment has done, being geniuses, is make the tests easier and easier and easier.

    You look at questions asked in the 70s or 70s– even the 1980s, and compare them with the questions on today’s exams and the difference in difficulty is striking. And the student today are still underperforming.

    In any case, I find these discussions to be laughable and ridiculous. What do we actually need to educate these kids for? To go to college where they can soak in the social justice drivel that seems to be what are major universities specialize in now?
    Please. We should not be spending more money on education. It is already a bloated system, stuffed with useless administrators, absurd affirmative action hires, and largely (with exceptions of course) staffed by teachers who are incompetent.

    • FriendlyGoat

      The first sentence of your post makes a whole lot more sense than the last paragraph.

      • Beauceron

        Yeah, but that’s because you’re an admirer of the social justice drivel I despise.

        • FriendlyGoat

          “Social justice” aside, how about the sheer practicalities of 1) Kids ARE becoming more difficult to educate over time due to all kinds of trends—–and——2) The country does not function when the incoming generations are left more ignorant, unfocused and unable to support themselves as functioning adults?

          • Beauceron

            “‘Social justice’ aside”

            You cannot simply sweep the crux of the problem under the rug and then demand an answer to the problem.

            In the humanities in particular the focus (or at least a large portion of the time) is not on history or literature or grammar or government– it’s increasingly on racial, gender and sexual grievances. You cannot expect students who spent much of their time learning about how, to quote one teacher from earlier this week lecturing to his class, “All white people are racist. Period.” to know about grammar or history. They don’t learn grammar or history. They learn about social justice.
            So, our students may not know about the individualism espoused by our founding fathers, or how to properly construct a coherent sentence. They do, however, know about how People Of Color can never be racist, how all white people are bigots because of the color of the skin they happened to be born with and how half of the students are deeply in debt to the other half of the students because they have oppressed them all their lives.

            That’s the absurdity. It’s more than a little bit unfair to blame the students. They may be dumber than pervious generations, but the bottom line is that we cannot expect them to know things they were never taught in the first place. There’s a disconnect here between what we expect students to know and what they are actually taught.

            Employers should not expect students to have basic communications skills– they should expect them to have an awareness of their guilt and culpability if they’re white– and to act with appropriate submissiveness to those they oppress. If they are a Person Of Color, I suppose they should act with the requisite moral superiority and sense of entitlement of people who are owed.

            Are you a white FriendlyGoat? Do you accept that you are a racist bigot who is deeply in debt to every Person Of Color in the country?

          • FriendlyGoat

            I get it that you’re frustrated with the considerable difficulties in education at all age levels. I get it that you’re tired of hearing about “social justice”. I don’t get it that you can spend enough time in these online gripe rooms until you are finally willing to throw your own common sense out the window and ask such a question as “What do we actually need to educate these kids for?

            When I was a kid, there were zero (zero) older people in my life—-at school, in church, in scouts, in sports, in business around the (small) town, and later in college, and later in employment at the good company I worked for—- who would have EVER raised a question like that in any seriousness anywhere. I’m old now, and I presume you are. What the hell happened to sense and maturity in older people?

          • JWJ

            Beauceron did a really nice job responding to you and your response is not on point (in my opinion).

            Time spent in school on “social justice” (see Beauceron’s comment for just a small sample) is not spent on math, grammar, history, civics, science. etc.
            Also, the ability to effectively discipline is gone.

          • FriendlyGoat

            You and I would differ in opinion on what is “a really nice job” of responding—–or even constructing an argument.

            Beauceron has so far left us wondering—-with his own question—- for what purpose we should educate children. All of his ranting about “the Left” and against “social justice” adds up to what I would call inaccurate, exaggerated, unnecessary, over-the-top, and generally useless commentary.

          • Beauceron

            Good lord.
            We should educate them so that they understand that Race is the prism through which every life must be lived, so that the 0.3% of the population that is transgendered can feel comfortable in women’s rooms all across the country, so that every child knows LatinX is the proper term and any other is oppressive systemic colonialism, so that they can provide an anarcho-syndicalist post-structural criticism of every film they see.

          • Beauceron

            Not that old.

            And you mistake me– I suspect intentionally.

            What I mean by it is this: why stress over poor student performance on tests when education is no longer geared towards the study of math, sciences, literature and history?

            I consider the new focus to be the equivalent of junk science. The SJW agenda is about indoctrination to a politicized social agenda, not education. I don’t want to pay more money for THAT. It seems to me that the rot has gone so deep in our education system, and continues to spiral downward, that the only way to fix it is to tear the edifice down to the studs and rebuild from there. But that’s not on offer. What’s on offer is paying more money for more of the same failed approaches.

            I don’t blame the students — much anyway. As I say above, both of my parents were high school teachers. My dad is retired and my mother still works, but she left the education field– said she was spending less and less time teaching her subject and more and more time on administrative tasks and babysitting students through programs that had nothing to do with learning about scholarly subjects.

            Have you ever bothered to peruse the conference agendas of one of the major academic associations to get a feel for what’s important to them?

            It’s often amusing– and it’s also striking how studded each is with goofy agitprop. Just a handful of the offerings from the latest MLA conference:

            March for Gun-Free Campuses; Boycotting Israeli Academic Institutions; Trans Poetics and Feminism; Other Europes: Migrations, Translations, Transformations; “Queers Read This”: LGBT Literature Now; Sound, Activism, and Protest; Elemental Ecocriticism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Fire, and Water; Comparative Approaches to Adoption; Queer History and the “Ontological Turn”

            The higher lights in education changed the core of our educational system. There was no mandate for change and most people disagreed with the changes they made, but none of that mattered. People who objected were, as usual, denounced as racist, and the changes went forward. The educational system that produced you is gone and it is gone forever and is never coming back. I watched the changes occurring when I was in college and graduate school. I feel I got in just under the wire, right before the Big Switch.

            A recent study showed that contemporary college seniors have the same level of general knowledge as high school seniors did 50 years ago ( Another study tested high school seniors on their knowledge of American history, and then tracked those students who chose to become history majors and gave them tested them again four years later– and the college graduates did worse than when they were in high school.

            In short, if the goal of high school education is to prepare a young student for a supposedly more rigorous university education, what’s the point of bleating about poor performing high school students? They don’t need that stuff once they hit college anymore. They need to know their racial place, or they need to know what proper pronouns to use when addressing a student who may be cisnormative or trans.

            My objection isn’t, as you grossly mischaracterize it, that these kids shouldn’t be educated. My objection is that, since this is what education has become, we shouldn’t be throwing more money at it. It is a sad thing to think that if you love literature or history, the one thing you should not do when you head off to university is be a History or English major. Those majors are for community organizers and SJWs, not people seriously interested in history or literature. If you want to reform education so that students have to learn about science and math and history and literature in a rigorous, demanding program, I am all in. Let’s lay out the money. But you don’t want that, do you? You characterize any criticism as whining.

            You’d do well, FriendlyGoat, to may spend just a little bit of time reading through The College Fix (
            ), or FIRE ( or Katherine Timpf’s catalog of stories (

            Burying your head in the sand is exactly what led us over the educational cliff.

          • FriendlyGoat

            When I Google the terms “Big Switch” + education, I am not getting much in the top results which seems related to what you are talking about. Leaves me wondering if this isn’t more residing in the political mind than in the ed community.

    • M Snow

      While I agree that system is bloated and that many administrators are useless, I don’t think the majority of teachers are incompetent. My husband was in the military and we moved a lot. As a teacher myself and the mother of two children who attended public schools, I was able to observe teachers in several states and socio-economic levels from high income Newport Beach, CA, to a poor rural school district that served the children of migrant workers and recent immigrants. Yes, there are lazy, incompetent teachers, but most work hard and are trying to do the best they can for their students, often in challenging conditions.

      The retirement plans of teachers (and all public employees) is a separate issue, one that neither political party has a clue how to solve. I fear for the next generation.

      • Beauceron

        Both my parents were public schoolteachers, and committed, good teachers too. But I think the population of teachers is shifting and now represents more fully the movement that has taken over the educational system top to bottom: the Left. I think, at least in the humanities, education is now indoctrination. And most teachers are enthusiastic indoctrinators now.

        • M Snow

          I just don’t think it is “most”, but I get your point.

      • Beauceron

        Both my parents were public schoolteachers, and committed, good teachers too. But I think the population of teachers is shifting and now represents more fully the movement that has taken over the educational system top to bottom: the Left. I think, at least in the humanities, education is now indoctrination. And most teachers are enthusiastic indoctrinators now.

      • FriendlyGoat

        A question I have always had about you is this. When, by real life experience, you actually do KNOW better than conservatives’ approach of blaming both teachers and their compensation and benefits for EVERYTHING wrong in education, why do you side with them and try to make excuses for their low-brow simplification of a complex problem?

        • Anthony

          Observation FG: “people are trying harder to ‘look’ right than to ‘be’ right…A central function of thought is making sure that one acts in ways that can be persuasively justified or excused to others. Indeed, the process of considering the justifiability of one’s choices may be so prevalent that decision makers not only search for convincing reasons to make a choice when they must explain that choice to others, ‘they search for reasons to convince themselves’ that they have made the right choice.” (Phil Tetlock)

          • FriendlyGoat

            One of the advantages of being the black sheep in a commenting community is that I know at the outset that I cannot “look right” to most of this audience.

            As for needling M Snow above, I just can’t resist because 1) I’ve been around the philosophy horn with her before with ridiculous and aggravating results, and 2) Though she probably will no longer respond to me (which is fine), she would have to have the emotional armor of an armadillo to not notice that most of this community is hostile to most of the practitioners of public teaching and to the schools they served in. It’s a decent reason for her to part with all this conservative rhetoric and she has to know it.

          • Anthony

            Whether black sheep or independent thinker among quasi-conformist, you are what you are (seasoned commentator inclined to assail (question) the conformity!

            Regarding the other, we humans (some even in virtual communities) are obsessively concerned about what others think of us (although much of the concern is unconscious and invisible to us).

        • M Snow

          Since you have cut out the personal insults lately, I will answer your question. Hyperbole is very tempting and sometimes people from both sides of the political spectrum overstate their cases. When conservatives do so, I disagree wth them, but just because they overstate a case doesn’t mean they have no case at all. Have you seen any of the “man on the street” type interviews where Americans, young and old, display appalling ignorance of the basic facts of our history? My favorite was done by Jimmy Kimmel last MLK Jr. Day. He managed to find around 8 adults who otherwise didn’t appear crazy to comment on the great speech given by MLK Jr. before both Houses of Congress THAT MORNING. Spoiler alert. They all loved it. Of course that is anecdotal, but scientific surveys of incoming college freshman indicate that too many students are leaving high school without even a basic understanding of history or civics.

          As I stated earlier, the problems wth our educational system are very complicated. Are you familiar with Albert Shanker? He was the head of one of the teacher’s unions in NYC during the 70’s and 80’s. He had been a poor child in the schools of one of New York’s more brutal neighborhoods during the Depression and always appreciated that his school was an oasis of calm amid daunting violence and poverty. He was a tireless advocate for better pay for teachers but he was also a tireless advocate for teacher and student accountability in providing a safe place to learn. When he passed from the scene the unions still pressed for better pay, but actually became hostile to all forms of accountability. Many began to adopt the SJW nonsense that has left many classrooms in chaos as just a few can disrupt everyone else with impunity. My daughter teaches in a middle class high school here in Las Vegas. Student assaults on other students or even teachers seldom result in serious consequences and drug use is fairly common because the penalties for getting caught are so light.

          I continue to believe that most teachers work hard to provide a good education to their students, but as long as liberals and ACLU types refuse to restore order to our schools, I will be on the side of conservatives who don’t see any reason to pour more money into a system that refuses police itself.

          • FriendlyGoat

            I continue to believe that most teachers work hard to provide a good education to their students, too. That’s why I am tired of hearing most of modern political conservatism running them down, running down their funding, running down their unions, running down their pensions, running down the Common Core, even running down (as Beauceron did) the whole concept of public education. (“What do we actually need to educate these kids for?”)

            You are correct that “the problems with our educational system are very complicated”. The primary solution proposed today from conservatism is school choice where publicly-raised money is to follow the student to whatever public or private school is chosen by the parents. Can you even IMAGINE the screaming from conservatism if their private schools were really told (as public schools are) that 1) You WILL accept however many kids show up at your door with a voucher, regardless of your planned capacity, 2) You WILL accept whatever socio-economic and skill sets they arrive with, 3) You WILL NOT be able to maintain exclusivity on price, 4) You WILL NOT be able to maintain exclusivity on grades, 5) You WILL NOT be able to just easily expel the ones you wish you didn’t have?

          • M Snow

            I’m tired of hyperbole from both sides. Trump is not Hitler and Hillary is not Satan, but we both could take a nice trip to the destination of our choice if we got a dime for all the overstatement on the Web. It is overstatement to say that most of modern conservatism is running down public education. Some do, but many have other suggestions such as restoring order and safety to classrooms in high poverty areas, modifying tenure to make firing incompetent teachers easier, and fixing curriculum and policy to eliminate the SJW and self-esteem nonsense that is too common. For example, the Minneapolis school district has instituted an insane policy of insisting all disciplinary actions exactly match the racial breakdown of the students no matter what proportion of the students in each group are misbehaving.

            I’m for making public education work as well. As I stated elsewhere on this blog, I think vouchers are worth a try as an emergency measure for some particularly ghastly schools, but I don’t think that they are a panacea. They should be subject to similar regulation to that which we now impose on homeschoolers. 1, 2, and 3 on your list seem reasonable. I have no idea what “grade exclusivity” is. Number 5 is, of course, the crux of the matter. Private schools often outperform public schools for two reasons. First, parents who pay actual tuition get exercised when they are informed that Little Joanie is not doing her homework. Second, the threat of expulsion for misbehaving is ever-present. I would be happy to give public systems greater authority to move disruptive students to “alternative” locations, but school boards and administrators have expressed little or no interest in such moves in the last 40 years. In fact, the whole IEP program is designed to make removal of disruptive students almost impossible. It’s the “insanity defense ” writ small. Offenses as great as stabbing another student with a carving tool are excused because the one who did it has “anger management issues.” ( Yes, this actually happened at the school where my daughter teaches.)

            If liberals didn’t fight almost every attempt to restore order to classrooms or make teachers and administrators accountable, they might be in a better position to argue against sly tax cutters.

          • FriendlyGoat

            I’m glad you don’t think vouchers are a “panacea”. Did you know that is no longer the position of most Republicans? Here are two sentences which appear in this year’s official Republican platform:

            “We especially support the innovative financing mechanisms that make options available to all children: education savings accounts (ESAs), vouchers, and tuition tax credits.”


            “We propose that the bulk of federal money through Title I for low-income children and through IDEA for children with special needs should follow the child to whatever school the family thinks will work best for them.”

          • M Snow

            Considering the fact that the Republican Party is currently going through a civil war that will likely leave it in tatters for quite some time (a development you are no doubt savoring), I don’t think citing the platform is a very good indicator of what “most” Republicans think. I suspect that most Republicans couldn’t care less about vouchers. They’ve already managed to move to the suburbs where the schools are pretty good or they are prosperous enough to afford private schools. They and the GOP elite may give lip service to vouchers, but that’s about it. I’m concerned about all the poor children caught in hellish inner city schools. I don’t think either party is lifting a finger on their behalf.

          • FriendlyGoat

            You might be surprised to learn that I really am more interested in reforming conservatives than in hurting any of them. I “came from” conservatives in early life and through churches with them into midlife. I know how and why they are supposed to be the most responsible, kindest, most generous, most fair-minded people around. I remember some of the old-fashioned ones who were good to the core. I lived with them. I worked for them when young.

            Republicans are now having that “civil war” because they condoned the political “education” of their lesser-light half with the initial falsehood that “tax cuts create jobs”, followed by a couple of decades of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Fox News. Along the way, they turned half the gun owners into maniacs and probably more than half of the church people into an amalgam of cluelessness and (increasingly) meanness. Many of you don’t particularly want to be associated with the whole of “Trumpism”—–but—–the lesser-light end of the “base” is now driving your ship.

            A big faction in that group absolutely wants to teach religion in schools and that is why “vouchers” are a big deal. It wouldn’t be in the platform except to attract votes from that voter segment and as a mechanism for needling the teachers unions. But, it’s THERE, so the rest of us take it seriously. The “reform” of conservatives now needed is to get the whole bunch of them speaking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth on all issues. (For a small starter, the term “death tax” has to go. It is one small example of the disingenuous messaging that got the GOP in its current mess.)

          • M Snow

            I never thought you’d want to hurt conservatives as individuals, but you do seem determined to destroy the policies that conservatives believe are best for the country. As to the “conservative promise,” you can take it as seriously as you please. I see no evidence of elite follow through. They’ve been promising vouchers for decades.

            I see the Republican civil war differently. I see it as elites vs the working class on two main issues, immigration and the whole gender identity and SJW stuff. Taxes are not a particularly important issue right now. Do the elites of both parties manipulate their “lesser-light halves?” Sure, look how many democrats voted for Bernie because of free stuff (the flip side of lower taxes.) Hillary knows she can’t make college free but she tries to imply she will.

            By the way, my husband was in law enforcement and then the Army. I know a lot of gun owners. None of them are maniacs. I don’t know very many religious people, so I won’t comment on their motives. Perhaps this is an issue that is a bigger deal in the South.

            Finally, liberals do not have an exclusive franchise on the truth. Conservatives speak the truth as they see it already. You just don’t agree with them.

          • FriendlyGoat

            And I see you as responding just as desired by the spinners to over-emphasis on “immigration, gender identity and SJW stuff”.

            THE issue for the Republican party as represented by Ryan and McConnell is high-end tax cuts. It is not a coincidence that Trump is proposing the biggest cuts in history—-tailor made for “elites”, and even to include Donald eliminating his own estate tax on top of having mostly skirted income tax.

            I’m not going to go too far on expressing my amazement at your politics considering your history of public-sector employment, and your husband’s, and your daughter’s. Like Donald Trump, I’ll just mention it while claiming I wouldn’t mention it. How people can be so benefitted by the left side of the career game and then turn their backs on the whole system which makes all that possible is beyond me. It’s probably best we terminate this.

  • Jim__L

    And, with tenure, the best way to get rid of a bad teacher is to make them retire.

    • M Snow

      An awfully long wait in most cases.

      • Jim__L

        But if you make the wait shorter by forcing them into early retirement, they keep collecting their pensions for even longer…. The incentives in the system are just awful.

        • M Snow


  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    What we have in public education is the Government Monopoly and the Teachers Labor Gang Monopoly combined. The leftists constant demand for more money is never going to improve student outcomes, when there are 2 Monopolies ready to steal all the money. History has proven that only free markets with the “Feedback of Competition”, have the Information and Motivation which forces continuous improvements in Quality, Service, and Price. The only mechanism by which Monopolies can improve is the “New Broom Sweeps Clean” as leadership from the market sector replaces monopoly leadership and makes changes.

  • MarkM

    It is sort of sad that more local governments have not managed to convert their teacher pension systems over to 401(k) style systems. As the teacher pension problem has gotten worse, states have actually made it harder to qualify and reduced the rewards associated with teaching for a shorter period of time.
    is an interesting analysis of the problem from a group which clearly advocates for teachers. From a political perspective, one nice thing about 401(k) style systems is that the costs are transparent, incurred up front and don’t allow promises to be made which have to be met with future tax dollars. With none of the costs hidden or deferred, the teachers should actually be more secure in their retirement.

  • William Prendergast

    The pensions are not “untenable” because they are “lifetime”. If a pension is constructed to begin paying benefits at a reasonable retirement age, it SHOULD be “for a lifetime”, or lifetime remaining.

    The pensions have become untenable because they were, and in many cases still are based on unreasonable and imprudent assumptions. The low interest rate, low return investment climate of today is what has made DEFINED BENEFIT pensions untenable. Let’s face it, defined benefit pensions SHOULD BE a thing of the past. To make promises like that is for the government to become the guarantor of retirement security for all it’s employees, despite the pension set-asides not providing enough earnings to make that possible without outside help downstream.

    So the obligation falls on the taxpayer who is struggling to try to set aside enough for his/her own retirement (under a LOT LESS FAVORABLE set of actuarial and investment assumptions than the government employee gets to use!) Why should government employees be guaranteed a certain amount per month in retirement when the rest of us poor suckers (taxpayers) out in the real world have to save for our retirement with a defined contribution plan (like an IRA or 401-K) and HOPE that we can make it grow enough and for long enough to provide us a chance to retire with a livable income!!

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