Students Suffer When Budgets are Cut

Education budget cuts have become a national crisis. The immediate results of these cuts are seen in tuition hikes and teacher lay-offs. However, the long-term effects are even more troubling.

Lack of funding has handicapped educators at all levels, as early as pre-school. The Head Start program, which provides services to poverty-stricken children, has already suffered. Research from the National Education Association shows that students enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs like Head Start perform better in school and are more likely to attend college. Additionally, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has found that each dollar invested in the Head Start program has a return of $7 to $9 as the enrolled students graduate from school and enter the workforce. Yet, the NEA reports that only 30 percent of eligible children are able to participate in the program due to insufficient funding. Despite the demonstrated success of the program, Head Start is on the chopping block again. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee, proposed cutting 200,000 spots from the program to provide additional funds for defense spending.

Decreases in education funding impact college students, as well. Tuition at all California state universities and community colleges has been raised, but the increased fees do not offset the shortages caused by additional funding cuts. Some schools have had to find alternate money saving measures. Valley College, for example, has had to cancel most of its summer classes. And, CSU recently eliminated grants for 20,000 graduate students, encouraging them to take out interest-heavy loans in order to pay their tuition.

Funding cuts also hinder student performance. An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study shows a direct correlation between the amount spent per student and test scores. Students nationwide were tested in math and reading comprehension in fourth grade, and again in eighth grade. On average, state test scores increased by one percent for each additional thousand dollars spent per student.

Interestingly, there was little correlation between test scores and teacher salaries. Schools that hire additional teachers, enabling each student to receive more personal attention, scored better on tests than those that simply raised salaries for their existing teachers.

Instead of hiring teachers, however, many school districts are laying teachers off as a way to save money. Many California teachers received “March 15” letters, indicating that they would not be guaranteed a job for the next school year. In the Los Angeles Unified School District alone, more than 11,700 letters were issued. While some of these teachers will be fortunate enough to still be employed in the fall, many will not. Statewide, more than 32,000 teachers have been laid off since 2007, according to a report from the state legislative analyst’s office.

Despite the obvious damage done by reducing education funding, the cuts continue. It is clear that there is a budget crisis, and it is just as clear that this is directly impacting students. As long as education is deprived of the funds it needs, students will suffer.

Misplaced Priorities

American education is suffering. Budgets are being cut and schools are first on the chopping block. Funds that should be spent on education are spent on wars or prisons, and American students are paying the price.

Educating people costs money, and this country simply doesn’t have enough of it, or at least not enough dedicated to education. This is an important distinction. America is coming out of a recession and has an extraordinary amount of debt, but there is still plenty of money to spend. The problem is how the government is choosing to spend it.

President Barack Obama’s proposed budget details total expenditures of more than $3.8 trillion. Of that, only $71.9 billion is intended for education, 1.8 percent of the total. For the sake of comparison, $672.9 billion, or 17.7 percent, is proposed for defense spending. Of course, national defense is important, but it certainly isn’t nearly ten times as important as education. America would be better served by spending less on killing people overseas and more on educating people here at home.

This skewing of priorities is also present on a state level. California has budgeted $10.7 billion for prisons and $39.2 billion for the state’s K-12 schools. These numbers are shocking when it is considered that there are approximately 155,000 prisoners in California and more than 6.3 million students. This translates to annual expenditures of about $69,000 per prisoner and only $6,200 per student.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that students who drop out of school are four times as likely to be incarcerated at some point. Increasing education funding to encourage students to complete high school can dramatically cut the need for incarceration funding. The study conservatively estimates $2,100 in savings per additional graduate. Increasing the national graduation rate by just one percent would result in savings of at least $1.4 billion. By spending a little more on education now, less will be needed for prisons later. Additionally, graduates have higher employment rates and salaries, meaning that tax revenues would increase, providing further economic benefit.

Gov. Jerry Brown has offered a potential way to supplement the state education budget, but it is mostly smoke and mirrors. He has proposed a temporary .5 percent sales tax increase and a raised income tax  on people making more than $250,000 annually. This is supported by more than 72 percent of people if the money is used for education, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. This is where Brown gets sneaky. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates $6.9 billion in additional revenue if the proposal is approved. The budget assumes that the tax increase will pass, yet grants less than $5.3 billion in additional education spending, meaning $1.6 billion has already been cut and diverted towards less popular purposes, including prisons. And, if the proposal doesn’t pass, an additional $4.8 billion in cuts will be triggered.

Still, this willingness to raise taxes is encouraging; especially since tax cuts for the rich are a large contributor to the national deficit, and efforts to reduce this debt are the primary justification for spending cuts. Citizens for Tax Justice estimates that these tax cuts took $2.5 trillion out of the federal budget over the last decade. This money could have eliminated the need for education cuts, but was instead used to pad pockets that were already overflowing.

America has chosen to spend its money blowing people up or locking them up, instead of raising them up through education. By prioritizing might over mind, and letting greed trump reason, this country is depriving itself of the very thing that made it great.