Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 4.28.18
Just Outside Washington


Make American Schools Great Again

My take on the learning of primary and secondary students is that we have been shorting the public school budgets for years. The figure below, from the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities, shows the percent change in per student expenditure by state from 2008 to 2014. The expenditures include teachers and administrators salaries, operating expenses including maintenance, and pension costs. Most states exhibited a decline over the period. Every state will have its own explanation; the real anomaly is North Dakota where expenditures increased by 90 percent. This increased spending was enabled by the oil boom beginning in 2006.

Virginia, where I live, was down by 11 percent for the period and we Virginians have all watched the General Assembly struggle to balance the budget, a constitutional requirement, in the face of declining tax/fee revenues. The Virginia General Assembly, which is controlled by Republicans, has resisted increasing taxes to pay for a growing number of public school students.

A 2015 study by the Commonwealth Institute, indicated that public education spending, when adjusted for inflation, dropped by 17 percent between the 2008 and the 2015. In Fairfax County, where I live, the schools not only have a growing number of students but an increasing number of students with special needs, including English as a second language.

The 2018 school budget was $2.7 billion, of that 23 percent was funded by the state and 1.5 percent by the federal government. The low federal contribution to the Fairfax school budget is indicative of the 10 percent overall decline in federal spending on K-12 education since 2008.

Recent news reports from West Virginia, Kansas, Kentucky, Arizona, and Oklahoma, where state legislatures are also controlled by Republicans, indicate that the strained school budgets have caused teachers and citizens to rebel for increased funding and not just salary increases. These states all show significant declines in state funding in the figure above.

Some of the decline, shown in the figure, has been due to economic conditions since the Great Recession and some to misguided policy; witness Governor Sam Brownback's tax cuts, which were supposed to grow the economy in Kansas. The lack of funds caused some school districts to shorten the school year. The tax cuts did not work and actually damaged the states economy, causing cuts in funding for schools.

After seven years of economic decline, the Republican Legislature raised taxes over the Governor's veto. To quote writer Julia Cameron: Nothing dies harder than a bad idea.

Candidate Trump talked a lot about fixing the infrastructure in the U.S. during his campaign, specifically he said:

"If we could've spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges and all of the other problems -- our airports and all of the other problems we've had -- we would've been a lot better off. I can tell you that right now."

As President, he is still talking about infrastructure, so in case he needs some help I offer the following idea, which is not original to me.

Public schools are infrastructure and are necessary for children's education. In 2011, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) awarded the United States a ‘D' for the condition of its public school infrastructure. The Obama Administration did a review, at the time, and found that the average public school building in the U.S. is 40 years, and many are much older.

The needs of these old schools included many emergency repair and renovation projects, energy efficiency upgrades, asbestos abatement and removal, water system upgrade (remember Flint), technology upgrades, and modernization to build new science and computer labs. The poor condition of public schools causes expenditure of over $6 billion annually energy bills, more than is spent on computers and textbooks combined.

The Obama Administration tallied the school infrastructure needs by state as shown in the table below and the total is $25 billon, less than 1 percent of Candidate Trump's $4 trillion infrastructure promise. Today the total is higher due to inflation and other factors.

If President Trump had kept his campaign promise to rebuild America's infrastructure and started with the public schools the effort would have put 317,000 Americans to work and would have been spread over all 50 states. The winner of the Electoral College in each state has been added to the table. Looking at the data from this perspective, indicates President Trump's supporters would have received $14 billion for school infrastructure and had 182,000 jobs created in their states.

Making schools great would go a long way to helping President Trump keep his promise to Make America Great Again. If the infrastructure promises are not kept, then the conclusion the American people must come to it that it was all hypocrisy. And as Edmund Burke, circa 1770, said: "Hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises, for never intending to go beyond promise, it costs nothing."