Funding Education

Senator Pat Jones has an idea about how to bring in more money for our public education system in Utah. I appreciate what she is trying to accomplish and laud her efforts to make a difference but as someone who definitely qualifies as having a large family (this bill will hit me twice as hard as at least half the households in the state) – in other words as someone whom this bill targets for funding – I have to say that there are a few problems with the logic behind this effort.

We need to prove that our schools are lacking in funds.

Just because we have the lowest per-pupil funding of all of the states doesn’t prove that our schools are under-funded. By that logic the lowest paid CEO in the Fortune 500 is underpaid by definition. We need a better metric than comparative per-pupil funding upon which to base our decisions. Also, even if we agree that our teachers are underpaid that doesn’t prove that our schools are under-funded. That would only be proof if we also showed that we were not spending excess funds in other areas of our educational system that should be spent on teacher compensation or other expenses that have more positive impact on educational outcomes instead. Nobody I know has yet made such an argument.

We need to ensure that more funding will actually improve our schools.

Just because we send more money to the schools does not mean that money will result in better education. For one thing, see the second half of the preceding paragraph. For another, our educational results have been consistently dropping for decades at the same time as we have been pouring more and more money per pupil into our educational system.

We have empirical evidence that more money is not guaranteed to result in a better educational system. The perpetual focus on putting more money in education feels more and more like someone insisting on filling the rickety car up with gas when what it needs is an oil change.

We need to clarify who puts a drain on the system.

Proponents of this bill argue that large families should pay more for education because they put more pressure on the system. That sounds good for first grade logic but it relies on a few assumptions which are not as solid as they sound. First, there is the assumption that all children will go to public school. If we are trying to place the financial responsibility on those using the schools then parents who educate some or all of their children at home or in private schools shouldn’t have to pay the public school system simply because they have those children – they should only have to pay based on the number of children who attend publicly funded schools. Second, there is the assumption that all children in school tax the resources of the school equally. I suspect that there are few people who truly fail to recognize that children with special needs, children with dysfunctional families, and children who receive more services from the school (such as free lunch) put more burden on the system than students who simply come to school and unobtrusively fill a desk. I’m not saying that there should be no special education programs or free lunches – just that not all students place equal burdens on the system.

We need to recognize who benefits from the system.

Just as the contingent putting the drain on the public education system is narrower and more complex than we might assume, the beneficiaries of the public education system is broader and more nebulous than we often realize. All of society is improved by a better educated upcoming generation – not just those who get the education or those who raise that generation. Also, besides educating our children, schools serve social functions to bring communities together which benefits more than the families of students. Finally, schools also serve as a convenient avenue for advertising to various commercial institutions.

Beneficiaries of the public education system include students, teachers, parents, communities, and businesses.

There is no perfect approach.

I recognize that there is no way that we can fund our education system in a way that is perfectly equitable. The people of the state may well decide that they believe we need more money for education and that this is an approach that they would like to take to close the finding gap. I simply want people to make sure their decision is based on sound reasoning and a recognition of what this does and doesn’t actually accomplish. What we need much more than extra funding for our public education system or more of our earnings in our pockets is to consistently make our decisions based on more than elementary data and simplistic assumptions.