The wave of teacher strikes, from West Virginia to Colorado, has raised our awareness of how teacher pay has fallen behind the salaries of other professionals and how desperate conditions are in many schools.
Some states have cut education budgets so severely that they are spending far less in today’s dollars than they were ten years ago.
There are widespread stories of teachers forced to buy school supplies out of their own pockets. In some school districts there are reports of textbooks that are 25 years old as well as textbooks held together with duct tape.
Education is an investment in the future. It is an essential component for ensuring the future employment of today’s students, our competitiveness as a nation, and the survival of our democracy. These stakes should bring into focus the federal government and its role as a de facto emergency response system for public education and presently accounting for less than 10 percent school funding.
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Congress recently passed a budget with approximately $700 billion for defense, which funds huge purchases of military hardware including many expensive new ships and aircraft.
This budget is higher than the 2016 defense budgets of the next nine countries combined. But our country is not threatened only by external adversaries, there is an equally serious threat of our own making. As Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be.” Why not apply some of our defense budget to strengthening our democracy from within, while strengthening our economy through a better-educated workforce?
I propose allocating 10 percent of the defense budget to the states for education proportionate to the number of nursery and K-12 students in the state. To receive the money each state would have to guarantee that it would raise state education budgets by the rate of inflation plus 2 percent a year.
Congress could establish recommended spending categories and the distribution of funds among them. For example, legislation could suggest a range of 30 to 50 percent of the funds for teachers’ salaries, 20 to 30 percent for school supplies, 20 to 30 percent for technology including student computers and so on. Alternatively, Congress could leave the details up to the states and individual school districts.
Census Bureau data for 2016 shows 58 million students in the US from nursery to 12th grade. Sharing 10 percent of the defense budget or $70 billion would provide $1,200 per pupil. In 2015 the nationwide average education expenditure per pupil was $12,903, varying from a low of $6,751 in Utah to a high of $20,744 in New York according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The proposed reallocation of defense dollars would provide a per pupil increase of 9 percent nationwide on average, a 6 percent increase for New York and an 18 percent increase for Utah. Combined with the required increases in state funds for education, we could raise teachers’ salaries, provide supplies and rebuild schools.
Education is the greatest gift we can give our children as well as a great gift for our country. Let us give generously.
Henry C. Lucas Jr. is a professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. His latest book is “Technology and the Disruption of Higher Education.”
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