If you want to know about school funding from a progressive point of view, you have to read Bruce D. Baker. His research over the last two decades and more has looked at the confusing, messy, and all-important world of school funding and inequality in the United States.
Baker has authored a ton of articles, reports, and general audience essays. He testifies before committees as an expert on school funding. He organizes a database for school funding with fine-grained data about every state (which are very different in how they fund their schools). He’s also active on Twitter.
In 2018, Baker published a retrospective on his work and the field of school funding and inequality, Education, Inequality, and School Finance. It’s helpful to have his thinking gathered in one place.
In this post, I want to lay out a few key points from the introduction dispelling rightwing myths about school funding and what I call Baker’s labor theory of school funding. (This may be the first of a series where I summarize points from each chapter. We’ll see.)
Baker starts by dispelling some rightwing snake oil. The first is that we don’t need more school funding.
He states plainly and clearly that money matters in education. Don’t let anyone tell you that it doesn’t. There are centrist and conservative talking points out there that money doesn’t help, that you need market efficiency, competition, data driven human capital policies or less union power. Bullshit. In fact
US schools on average have shown significant improvement on national assessments during periods when average spending has increased across states, but have declined in more recent years as average spending declined.
More money, less problems.
Part of this myth about funding is linked to another: US schools are always and constantly failing. Bullshit.
If you want to take down social democracy, you’d certainly have an interest in saying its programs fail, but in the case of public schools this isn’t true. There’s been plenty of evidence that
US students perform much better than what is suggested by commonly cited, unadjusted rankings that fail to account for changes in subgroup proportions when aggregating test results.
Our schools are actually doing pretty well, considering.
Also undergirding rightwing attempts, from both sides of the aisle, to undercut school funding is the idea that school funding has been increasing over time. Again, bullshit.
People who say this use a consumer price index to measure the value of education dollars over time. Baker uses an “education comparable wage index” rather than a consumer price index and finds that per-pupil spending didn’t rise for the decade between 2005-2015. It actually declined after the financial crisis in real terms. In terms of education spending as a share of gross domestic product, school funding is now where it was in 2000 and in 1975. So it oscillates.
Labor Theory of School Funding
The comparable wage index measure gets to what may be one of Baker’s most important takeaways in the book. School spending, he says, is largely driven by staffing costs. Pay people more, you get better outcomes.
He comes back to this point over and over again: having good schools—especially for low-income students—means paying faculty, staff, and admin well. You need a lot of qualified people to do this work and you need to pay them well to do it. It’s expensive but it’s worth it because schools are worth it.
Baker cites a study looking at outcomes for low-income students and found that “the most effective interventions were those involving increased human resources.”
I call this thesis the labor theory of school funding. It’s a play on Marx’s labor theory of value, which says that value derives from human labor. While it’s debatable whether this is true for all value, when it comes to educational value, what matters is labor: the quality and quantity of your workers, and thus how much you pay them.
Turns out that the total number of teachers in the US per 100 students has been at the break-even point for the last fourteen years. Hiring hasn’t increased. Even more enraging is that teacher wages have been going down relative to positions that require a college education since 1995.
In general, Baker’s message is anti-austerity. He does battle with pro-austerity neoliberals and conservatives and show plain and simple that we need to spend more. It’s wonderfully clarifying as a socialist, since this up-to-date research justifies calls for further state effort in tax grants to school districts, and calls out states that don’t make that effort in no uncertain terms.