“When our students succeed, our nation succeeds.” The simplicity of this statement — a tagline for the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of more than 100 associations and institutions committed to advocating for federal investment in education — is outweighed by the power of the words. It is a sentiment echoed by former Vice President Joe Biden, who said, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” And right now, it is hard to make the case that investment in our nation’s students — our nation’s future — is fully acknowledged for not only the priority it should be, but that education investment plays as a foundation for a robust, accessible national economy.

AASA, the School Superintendents Association, is a professional organization that represents the nation’s 13,000 public school superintendents. Our advocacy is focused on federal policy, and includes a dedicated effort of monitoring federal investment in education and ensuring that federal investments are prioritized in programs, services and supports that help level the playing field for historically disadvantaged populations and work to complement state and local investments and support state and local decision making. Over the course of more than eight years, the duration of the nation’s greatest recession and its aftermath, AASA conducted a series of economic impact surveys detailing the extent to which fiscal pressures translated in very real cuts to schools. The data and related analysis documented both the continued erosion of revenue for state and local school budgets stemming from the recession and its impact on the nation’s public schools. The nation’s schools, the educators who staff them and the students they serve survived round after round of budget cuts, program eliminations and job cuts. As the recession ended, its cuts and related fiscal restraint carried on, and education funding continues to face threats from federal policies and (in)action, impacting even the most resilient of schools and undermining whatever weak economic stability state and local economies may be experiencing. The long-term perspective of the surveys highlights that it was not just the latest cuts that prove most problematic. Rather, it is the inability of states and local school districts to make their budgets “whole,” to return them to pre‐recession levels. Now, more than ten years since the start of the recession, our nation’s K‐9 graders have spent the entirety of their K‐12 experience, to date, in a post‐recession funding climate. There are many who like to downplay the impact that more money can have on educational opportunity, and AASA agrees that funding alone is not the silver bullet. We cannot, however, when armed with data like this, turn a blind eye to the stark reality that the fiscal pressure of these sustained cuts continues to deny schools and the students they serve of critical resources.  

As schools open their doors to welcome students for the 2018-19 school year, they are working with federal dollars from federal fiscal year 2018 (FY18). The final funding deal for FY18 feels like a windfall, with a nearly $4 billion increase to the U.S. Education Department (USED). An increase of that size is always welcome and applauded, but we have to be honest about two things. It only feels like a windfall because cuts at the federal level — through a combination of annual appropriations, sequestration cuts and budget caps — were very, very low. Without Congress taking explicit action to raise the annual funding caps, the education investments from the federal level would have been at or below those of FY08 or FY07, funding levels from a decade ago for today’s students, a population that has higher rates of students in poverty, students with disabilities and students who are English Language Learners. While Congress was able to pass a final funding package that restored the cuts, we have to be mindful that even with this significant increase, the final FY18 funding levels at USED remain below where they would have been if Congress had done nothing, and just level funded education since 2012 (adjusting for inflation).

Education funding represents just two percent of the federal budget. The Committee for Education Funding champions the ‘Five Cents Makes Sense’ campaign, an effort to increase the federal investment in schools to five cents of every dollar in the federal budget. Money matters in education, and the current levels of two cents per dollar — even as we know and watch our nation’s public schools struggle to meet the needs of all students — leaves room for improvement. Investment in education makes sense, and for more than just academic reasons. It increases educational attainment, bolsters the broader education system and pays dividends — in terms of higher life time earnings and related taxes — to both students and the economy.

The trend of cuts to education funding parallel the cuts to spending on children in general. A recent report by the Urban Institute[1] paints a bleak picture as it relates to what we can expect in federal funding for children, and four points jump out to demonstrate continued room for improvement:

  • In 2017, 9 percent of the federal budget (or $375 billion of $3.9 trillion) was spent on children younger than 19.

  • Looking forward, children’s programs are projected to receive just one cent of every dollar of the projected $1.6 trillion increase in federal spending over the next decade.

  • Under current law, the children’s share of the budget is projected to drop from 9.4 percent to 6.9 percent over the next decade, as spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest payments on the debt consume a growing share of the budget.

  • By 2020, the federal government is projected to spend more on interest payments on the debt than on children.

  • Over the next decade, every major category of spending on children (health, education, income security and so on) is projected to decline relative to GDP.

The cuts and fiscal pressures are not unique to the federal level. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities detailed how public investment in K-12 schools — crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity — has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade.

So where do we go from here? Where can we go from here? The answer is simple. We can — and must — go up. And it really is as simple as choosing our children and their future, and funding accordingly. It won’t be easy, because all budgeting comes with decisions, and we will have to actively choose to invest in our nation’s children and their education, likely at the expense of something else. I’ve sat through countless budget briefings where I hear the tired adage of, “This budget was full of tough decisions.” I believe it was full of tough decisions; I’m also tired of children and schools baring the brunt of these tough decisions. It is time to stop making decisions and budgets that compromise the ability of our students to reach their full potential. It is time we put the days of budgets that fall short of fully and adequately funding public education behind us, and to start down a new path premised on the simple truths that money matters in education and that our students’ future — and that of our country — depends heavily on the quality of our public schools and our ability to make a high quality public education an option for all families and all communities.   

[1] Isaacs, J.; Lou, C.; Hahn, H.; Hong, A.; Quackenbush, C.; and C.E. Steuerle. (July 2018). Kids’ Share 2018: Report on Federal Expenditures on Children through 2017 and Future Projections. Urban Institute: Washington, D.C.

[2] ibid

[3] Leachman, M. (Nov. 2017). A Punishing Decade for School Funding. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: Washington, D.C..