Many folks are looking forward to a new presidential administration and a Democratic Congress and believe that the floodgates are going to open wide when it comes to federal education funding. Eight years of talk of unfunded education mandates can do that to a person. But then reality sets in, and we realize that current economic conditions likely mean that additional education dollars are several years in the offing. Sure, there may be a new prioritization of spending. Some programs will be abandoned in favor of new priorities. Federal investment in public education is not likely to grow any time soon, though.
That’s a large part of why Eduflack has been focused on a new EdSec and his or her power from the bully pulpit. We may not have more dollars to spend in the coming year, but we have the power of rhetoric and the strength of hope. We can build public awareness around the important issues, ensuring that current dollars are well spent and human resources and attention are being spent on the issues that matter, the issues that can boost student achievement, close the achievement gap, and get every student learning.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we are starting from nothing, with our pockets out-turned and an empty jar of nickels left on the counter. Financially, our federal investment in education has never been stronger. This week, Businessweek magazine dedicates its “Numbers” page to federal spending on education. The numbers, mostly provided through NCES, are quite surprising. Adjusting for 2008 dollars, federal education spending has increased 45% over the last decade, from $64 billion in 1998 to $93 billion in 2008. For those focused on K-12, elementary, secondary, and vocational education spending increased from $23.3 billion to $39.7 billion alone. Credit NCLB, credit Senator Ted Kennedy, credit whomever you want, that’s an almost 70% increase in such federal spending over the past decade. And that’s some significant dollars.
The question now before those in power, the status quoers, and even the agitators is how we spend that money. If we’ve increased federal investment in education by 45%, are we seeing the return on investment? What are we doing to ensure every student has the early reading and math foundations they need to succeed throughout the education process? What are we doing to use the middle grades to place students on the path for the future? What are we doing to increase high school graduation rates? What are we spending on to ensure all grades are offering rigorous and relevant courses that point every student toward opportunity and success? And what has increased federal spending meant for additional dollars chipped in at the state and federal levels. (Remember, of course, that the feds only account for about 7% of total K-12 education spending, and Businessweek is only looking at that federal investment.)
The big decisions are not about dollars, but about priorities. How does the U.S. Department of Education ensure that that nearly $40 billion in K-12 is being spent wisely, particularly since the same decade has seen federal spending on training and employment decline by nearly 20%, from $6.4 billion to $5.2 billion? Like it or not, that means we are now relying on our K-12 systems to prepare our kids for the challenges of the 21st century workforce. And as we look at this economy and current job trends, that’s asking an awful lot from a system built on the notion that a third of students will drop out before completing their high school educations.
Spending and student achievement has long been a chicken-egg argument. Does more money mean more achievement? Or do we reward improved performance with additional dollars? The betting odds are education spending will stay flat over the next few years. If that’s true, and we are selling a new education agenda with new priorities and new programs, how do we ensure we are getting true ROI on that $93 billion investment? Better yet, and even more simply, how do we effectively measure return? These are the questions we’ll need to be asking in the coming months.