Money Matters

Andy Rotherham:

Last week’s TIME column about the prospects for school spending occasioned some interesting responses. A common one, though, was the idea that the public is just clamoring to spend more on schools. You hear this a lot. Unfortunately, there are three problems with this argument:

Structural: The money just isn’t there (and annual increases are largely spoken for). The current trajectory of spending is simply not sustainable unless we’re prepared to made radical changes in policies, for example, affecting health care, senior citizens, or prisons. Whether or not we should make those changes is debatable. In many states all senior citizens get a break on property taxes, which are a key revenue source for schools. As the population ages this will ripple through public education budgets. Should these measures be means-tested for ability to pay? Perhaps. Given how politics works are they likely to be? Doubtful. Likewise, our correctional policies are a mess but most politicians are not lining up to fix them. So sure, today’s fiscal choices are just that, choices, but the implications of those decisions and prospects for change must be considered with an eye toward political and other realities realities. A second, related, structural constraint is how little discretionary money there is annually because of how much is tacked down for ongoing obligations. In practice this means that there are annual increases (excepting the last few years where in some places you’ve seen genuine reductions), which consume new money.