Money, as politicians love to say and as we are more than willing to acknowledge, will not solve our education problems. But a certain amount of money is necessary to solve our education problems, because it costs money to pay for teachers and textbooks and even more money to encourage the best teachers to stay and to provide after-school and summer programs to help the students who aren’t keeping up.
So it’s good to see that legislators are on track to increase the average amount of money the state spends per student by $358 — by far the largest increase since 2006, when the Legislature increased funding by $438 per student to catch up after five years of recession-induced under-funding. That will bring total state education spending to nearly $4.4 billion — 41 percent of all state spending and second only to Medicaid.
It’s also good to see that lawmakers in the House and the Senate Finance Committee recognized the role low pay plays in our inability to recruit and retain teachers, and used the bulk of that money to provide a significant raise to teachers. Last year, the minimum starting salary for teachers was $28,000. This year it’s $32,000. Next year it will go up to $35,000. And other teachers will see their pay increase by 4 percent.
Will this bring teachers’ salaries up to where they ought to be? In most cases, no, and still not enough to reverse a cultural trend away from teaching. But these are significant increases that few other people are seeing in the public or private sector. And legislative leaders say the 4 percent pay hike is just the first increase in a multi-year effort to raise salaries by 10 percent.
But even with that $358 per student increase, it looks like spending still will be $255 less per student than state law requires. That’s significantly smaller than this year’s shortfall, but it’s still a shortfall, and it belies any suggestion that this budget makes up for a full decade of failing to provide the amount of money state law requires. (We say it looks like this because lawmakers have changed how they report education funding this year, making it difficult to make an exact comparison.)
You can’t even say that lawmakers are increasing school funding all they could without raising taxes or making difficult decisions about cutting other areas, since that $250 million boost for education is only a quarter of the increase in next year’s budget.
Some of the other $740 million in increased spending pays for valuable, even essential, services. Some doesn’t. Among the “doesn’t” part is $61 million to send $50 rebate checks to every income tax filer. That’s one-time money, so we can’t use it to raise teachers’ pay, but it could fund more school buses, or textbooks, or help pay for maintenance and upgrades in school districts that can’t afford them or a host of other expenditures that are far more important than giving a one-time tax break in a state that consistently ranks among the 10 lowest-taxed states in the nation. When senators begin debating the budget this week, they should redirect that money — and more.
And then they ought to pass education reforms that have already cleared the House, so we’ll have some of the smart policy changes we need to accompany that extra spending that we also need.