In the documentary "Waiting for Superman," there's a clip of Bill Clinton campaigning in 1992 in front of a teachers' union group. Education reform, he tells the teachers, "is not about money. Except when it is about money."
This is supposed to make us laugh and deride the received wisdom of the Democratic Party. After all, everyone knows Washington, D.C. has the highest per pupil spending in the country and some of the worst achievement outcomes. Everyone knows the United States is spending more per pupil than any country except Switzerland, yet our kids are getting their asses kicked by those smarty-pants Singaporeans.
And it's true. Except when it isn't. Take a look at this scatter plot comparing per pupil spending to high school graduation rates. As you can see, some states–like D.C. and New York–are spending a heck of a lot and getting a heck of a little. But overall, as the good folks at the New America Foundation point out, there is no easy conclusion we can draw about the relationship between spending and academic achievement.
Consider New Jersey: It has a very diverse student population, spends the most per pupil of any state in the country, and also has the fifth highest graduation rate. It has achieved this through wise, court-mandated investment in academic enrichment and social supports–including universal pre-K–for low-income kids.
All of this is a long wind-up to say the following: There's a lot to admire about President Obama's 2012 education budget. He makes some sensible compromises–ex; allowing interest to accrue on grad school loans (a graduate degree is likely to lead to a higher income)–while investing in the preparation of new STEM teachers and incentivizing some proven reforms, such as high-quality pre-school.
But it's important to remember that federal dollars account for less than 10 percent of national education spending, and at the state level, schools are reeling. The Times had a great story on this yesterday, about a Texas district forced to close a school, lay off 38 teachers, and even trademark its mascot "in a frantic effort to raise cash." Texas legislators are proposing $3.5 billion in cuts to the public school system, which could lead to over 100,000 layoffs.
In this climate, in which good teachers are losing their jobs and taking pay cuts, Obama's budget increases represent just a drop in the bucket. All of this puts in discouraging perspective the president's call, in his State of the Union address, for the nation's best and brightest to enter the teaching profession.