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Education Notebook on Education

November 1, 2004

November 1, 2004 | Education Notebook on Education

In Search of the "Magic Number"

In Search of the "Magic Number"

November 1, 2004

On September 9, 2004, the House of Representatives voted to increase education funding by $2 billion. The Department of Education will receive a total of $57.7 billion to administer K-12 and postsecondary programs in 2005. Programs serving poor and disabled students will receive the largest boost. Funding for education programs administered by other agencies, such as Head Start, also will increase. The bill passed with the support of Democrats and all but a few Republicans.

While the bill brings education spending to an all-time high, the National Education Association claims that it "falls far short of what schools need to fully meet the mandates of the so-called 'No Child Left Behind' law." Another advocacy group, the Committee for Education Funding, calls the bill a "fiscal starvation strategy." Both groups claim the bill falls short of billions of dollars "promised" when the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed two years ago.

While it may be too much to expect them to say "this is sufficient" or "this is too much," or even "thank you," these special-interest groups at least ought not to mislead people. NCLB is not an unfunded mandate. The act is both funded and voluntary. And there were no promises. Congress sets funding levels for all programs in annual appropriations bills. Several studies suggest that these funding levels are adequate. Apparently, all but a few Members of the House agree.

Nor are special-interest groups the only ones guilty of disingenuous rhetoric. Congress routinely claims that it is doing all it can to maximize funding for poor and disabled children. Yet the annual appropriations bills are invariably chock-full of pork-barrel spending and funding for special-interest programs like the Historic Whaling and Trading Partners Exchange Program, Ready-to-Learn Television, and the Women's Educational Equity Act, to name only three.

Rhetoric aside, the question remains: Is the level of federal funding for education sufficient? To answer this question, one must first put federal spending in perspective. Of the $500 billion the nation spends on its schools, federal funding accounts for less than 10 percent-a small slice of a large pie. And $500 billion is a lot of money.

Internationally, the United States is the big spender. The U.S. is second only to Switzerland in K-12 spending, relative to per-capita GDP, and it rises to first place when post-secondary spending is added to the equation. But in terms of achievement, American students are not at the head of the class. In fact, by the 12th grade, they drop to near the bottom in math and science on both international and national assessments. On one international science and math test for 12th graders, the U.S. ranked 18th out of 21 countries. On the U.S.'s own tests-the National Assessment of Educational Progress-less than a quarter of 12th grade students are proficient in either subject.

If big spending has left us at the bottom of the pile academically, is the funding question really the most important one to be asking? There will likely never be consensus on what constitutes adequate spending at either the state or national level. But to make progress in education policy, it would be a good start to admit that money should not be the only question up for debate.

A version of this article originally appeared in the October 2004 edition of the NewsLeader, a publication of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

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