Choctaw scholar and educational policy expert Joel Spring (2011) has argued that there are three primary questions at the heart of the politics of education: What knowledge is most worth teaching, what are the best methods and school organization for teaching this knowledge, and what should be the cost of disseminating this knowledge?
It is certainly debatable as to whether American educational policy has ever truly formulated an adequate response to any of these questions with regard to the needs of all students. However, there is little doubt that questions related to school funding and finance have most recently held center court in both the public and political realms. Policy approaches to school organization and curricular decisions are now seemingly inextricable from the influence of money, and as levels of advocacy and activism have risen on behalf of public schools and teachers, public perception and the realities of inadequate funding require a new approach to school finance.
The human cost of the decades long trend of cost-cutting in educational policy is clear. Competitive salaries and earning potential have been commonly cited as a factor contributing to the high attrition rate for professional educators. Recent statistics reported by the Department of Labor revealed that teachers and school staff are resigning their positions at the highest rate on record (Hackman & Morath, 2018). Although teachers who choose to leave the classroom permanently more frequently attribute their decision to professional frustration and absence of administrative support, issues of educational finance tremendously impact our schools. While the number of teachers with advanced degrees has continued to increase, studies have shown that education professionals earn far less than other professionals with comparable levels of schooling (Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, 2017). However, the issue isn’t only that teachers in states such as Tennessee earned 4.4% less in 2019, even with higher rates of advanced degrees, than they did in 2009. There is growing concern over a projected teacher shortage nationally. Teachers aren’t just leaving the classroom at higher rates, too few prospective educators are walking through the classroom door. Over the last decade, the number of students who completed a teacher preparation program has declined more than 20% and the number of undergraduate degrees awarded in education dropped by 15% from 2005 to 2015 (AACTE, 2018). The reality of poor school funding and low salaries reinforces the perception that teaching is not a financially viable profession.
The problem, however, is more complicated than just the money. The problem for school leaders and researchers is one of educational equity. Inadequate school funding and stagnant wages have long-term detrimental effects upon schools and students. Experienced teachers leaving the profession, unfilled teaching positions, higher teacher-student classroom ratios, organizational instability, and in some cases reliance upon unqualified staff all influence student success and achievement. Unsurprisingly, rural and urban school districts with the highest levels of poverty are impacted the most. For example, schools in Tennessee, which were recently assigned a grade of F for funding level and funding effort in a 2019 report published by the Education Law Center, are experiencing increasing levels of teacher turnover, and local education agencies in both rural and urban settings report lack of adequate funding as a significant challenge. One of every 3 students in Tennessee attends a rural school, giving the state the 5th largest population of rural students in the country; yet, rural school systems have had to withstand the greatest decrease in state educational funding support in the nation (Rural School and Community Trust Report, 2019). Similarly, urban schools in the state are also struggling due to a lack of resources and state funding for the additional teaching and staff positions required to meet the needs of a student population that has grown in both numbers and diversity. In metropolitan areas, teachers earn too little to afford cost of living within their own districts. In rural settings, districts cannot offer salaries high enough to recruit prospective candidates to work in their schools. Understandably, this only feeds the perception that teaching, especially in consideration of the professional demands of the classroom, simply is not worth it.
Too often, policymakers ignore the covert messaging of decisions focused solely upon budgets and accountability measures. The repetitive refrain that schools are failing by politicians and pundits perpetuates the narrative that districts don’t deserve increased funding levels and that money will not fix struggling schools. Indeed, surveys have shown that the national perception of schools is often relatively low; however, respondents’ perception of their own schools in their own communities is frequently very strong. Data from the 2019 PDK poll, which measures attitudes towards public schools, reveals that while the percentage of parents who would rate schools nationally as an A or B continued to drop, 76% responded they would assign an A or B to the school their child attended. Sadly, the same survey indicates on one hand broad support for increased funding and salaries for teachers, while also revealing that a majority of parents and current classroom teachers would advise their own children to choose a career path other than teaching and education.
Schools are being doubly harmed by the power of perception and the resistance of policymakers to pursue funding measures that benefit schools, teachers, and students. In a time when schools graduate more students, prevent more dropouts, and provide more academic options and support to a more diverse student population than ever before, there should be greater impetus on per-pupil expenditures and recruiting and retaining teachers who have both the skill and desire to spend their career working with the children of our communities. Teachers and students deserve more, and research indicates that increasing school spending and teacher pay does indeed result in higher academic achievement and reduced rates of adult poverty for students (Abott et al., 2020; Jackson et al., 2016; Spears, 2020). In Tennessee, where funding and poverty are a statewide concern that cuts across county and district lines, the continued failure to adequately fund schools and increase salaries sends a clear message—in educational policy, money talks. Either we believe kids are worth it or we do not.