Distorted Education Attack Ads Hide the Facts

Political campaigns across the country are heating up—thanks in no small part to all the hot air surrounding accusations about alleged “cuts” to education funding. As I explain in a recent USA Today column:

In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has been savaging her opponent, Republican N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, for allegedly cutting $500 million from the state’s education budget.

In the Wisconsin governor’s race, Republican Gov. Scott Walker is being attacked by challenger Mary Burke for allegedly engineering “the largest cuts to K-12 education funding in the history of our state.” In other races, the story is the same: more money is better; cuts (usually reductions in proposed increases) are seen as bad.

The reality is, average per-pupil funding nationwide exceeds $12,000, but only about 54 percent of that amount funds what’s broadly considered instruction. The rest goes toward administration, food service, capital projects, and debt.

What’s more, spending varies widely from state to state. Per-pupil funding ranges between less than $8,000 in Utah and Idaho, yet skyrockets past $28,000 per pupil in top-spender DC.

If the rationale behind the political ad campaigns were true, students in top spending states would outperform those in cellar-dweller spending states—but that’s not the case:

Moreover, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, average NAEP reading and math performance levels among low-income students (those who qualify for the national school lunch program) are virtually identical in the top- and bottom-spending states. In both cases they’re abysmal, with just one of five low-income students proficient in reading at both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. In math, one in four low-income fourth-graders tests proficient (at both the highest and lowest spending levels), while even fewer eighth-graders are proficient—18% in the bottom-spending states, 20% in the top-spending states.

The question voters should be asking this election season isn’t which candidates promise to spend the most on education, but which ones will direct taxpayer funds to programs that actually improve student learning.

Parental choice programs empower parents to choose their children’s schools and have the best track records at improving student outcomes, including higher academic performance and graduation rates.

What’s more, because these programs cut out the hefty government middleman, they don’t have the biggest price tag, either.

Vicki E. Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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