It is possible to bankrupt a nation’s treasury by extravagant expenditure upon alleged “education.” Worse still, it is possible to bankrupt a nation’s culture in the name of schooling…

School Needs in the Decade Ahead by Roger A. Freeman (Institute for Social Science, 1958)

Federal Aid to Education: Boom or Bane? by Roger A. Freeman (American Enterprise Association, 1955)

The National Education Association—the most powerful lobby in Washington—recently published a booklet, primarily for the use of school administrators, on “how to answer Roger Freeman.” That the NEA officials should set to work promptly to attempt to refute Mr. Freeman’s serious studies, rather than to weigh and perhaps to use them, is some evidence of the arrogant and unreasonable temper of the people who presume to speak for the nation’s teachers.

For Mr. Freeman is a dispassionate, well-informed, methodical authority on fiscal matters, particularly the financing of education; and his two recent publications ought to be in the hands of every school-board member. (The Carnegie Corporation recently gave free copies of Dr. Conant’s American High School Today to present and past school-board members throughout the United States; their money would have been spent better in distributing Mr. Freeman’s analysis.) Congressmen, members of state legislatures, and school-board members commonly feel unable to criticize the demands of professional educational administrators for more money, even though they feel that somehow these claims are excessive. Mr. Freeman’s investigation summarizes the problems of public educational finance lucidly and accurately. And Mr. Freeman’s earlier pamphlet on federal aid to public education—published four years ago—remains the best treatise on that subject, sure to be as much debated in the next Congress as it has been in the present.

School Needs in the Decade Ahead, embellished by dozens of tables and graphs, soberly demolishes a great many claims of the lobbyists and publicists of the National Education Association, its state affiliates, state departments of public instruction, and many local school administrators. Far from being starved for funds, the American public schools have more money, absolutely and relatively, than ever they had before—more, indeed, per student, than any other people ever have spent anywhere in the world, at any time in history. Education is the second largest item of federal, state, and local expenditure, surpassed only by national defense; it amounts now to some fifteen percent of the governmental cost. (The total cost of police is only 1.3%; of public welfare, 3.2%.)

Mr. Freeman generally expresses his statistics, conveniently, in “constant dollars”—that is, he allows for the inflation of the dollar that has gone on for nearly a generation, and puts figures for earlier years in terms of the purchasing power of the present dollar; thus he is not open to the charge, sometimes made by zealots for public-school expenditure, that we cannot rightfully compare present appropriations for schools with those of a generation ago. The figures I quote below, then, are in “constant dollars.”

In 1890 we spent $8.15 per capita on public schools; now we (1958 statistics) spend $90.33 per capita, even though there are more students in private schools than there were in the nineteenth century. From this enormous increase in expenditure, we have gained almost nothing in the works of the mind; as Dr. Arthur Bestor points out, even the champions of “Progressive” education only claim that present schools are “just as good as” the schools of yesteryear. (The reading of serious books, incidentally, has greatly declined, per capita, in American since 1890.)

We Americans now spend far more, absolutely and relatively, on public schooling than does any other nation. The latest accurate comparison of such national expenditures is that of 1953. In that year, America spent $64.42, per head of population, on public education. This was 3.42% of our national income. The U.S.S.R., in 1953, spent $36.42 per capita on public education—and their figure includes activities which in America are carried on by private schools and colleges, and by voluntary associations. West Germany, with only small expenditure for national defense, and with a high reputation for thorough schooling, spent only $16.10 on public education, per capita. Switzerland, long devoted to public education, and very prosperous, spent only $22.87 per capita. We have not been starving our schools, to put the matter mildly; but we do not seem to have been receiving commensurate value for our investment in public education.

Nor have we been starving our teachers, despite constant complaints from the NEA and its affiliates that the teaching profession cannot recruit adequately because of poor pay. On the contrary, the public-school teacher’s income has risen sharply, both relatively and absolutely. Between 1929 and 1956, in terms of 1956 dollars, the average teacher’s annual salary increased by $1,988. This was markedly greater than the increase received during that period by all public and private employees, and higher still than the pay-raises of federal government employees and state and local government employees.

Among “professional” people, only the physician has done better economically in recent years than has the teacher. Teachers’ incomes increased by 53%, between 1929 and 1951; while dentists’ incomes increased only 21%, and lawyers’ by 18%. During the Depression, incidentally, teachers’ incomes declined much less than did those of other professional people. It is notable that though engineers are said to be in short supply nowadays, engineers’ income did not increase nearly so satisfactorily, from 1929 to 1953, as did teachers’: Engineers’ pay went up 15% during that period, but teachers’ pay increased 65%.

The cost of public schooling, per pupil, in “constant dollars,” has multiplied almost seven times since 1900—with very little evidence that there has been any improvement of public culture to show for all this money spent. If the trends of the past half-century continue at this rate, by 1970 we will be spending between eighteen and twenty billion dollars on school-operating expenses alone—more than twice the 1955-56 level of such expenditure. As Mr. Freeman summarizes matters in his final paragraph:

Assuming that a teacher-pupil ratio of 1:24 will prevail, that the consumer price index will stand at 150 and that teachers’ salaries will keep rising at a decennial rate of 30 percent, teachers’ salaries will average $7,834 and school revenue requirements in 1969/70 will amount to $27.4 billion or about three times the $9.7 billion revenues which the school had in 1955/56.

Why has the cost of public schooling increased at this gigantic and even menacing rate? The primary reason seems to be the change from the “subject-matter-centered” school to the “child-centered school”—in short, the triumph of “Progressive” over “Traditional” education. Not only is “Life Adjustment” injurious to the imparting of intellectual and ethical disciplines, but it is immensely more expensive than conventional schooling. The hierarchs of public-school administration recently have been eager to turn every high-school into an imitation of a college campus, sprawling over many acres. Mr. Freeman quotes a remark in The High School in a Changing World (the Yearbook for 1958 of the American Association of School Administrators) upon the desire for a high-school campus of forty to a hundred acres. One reason for the demand for land was this: “Five or more acres of land are required in some areas just to provide parking for students’ cars.” The question will occur in some minds whether we are operating schools, or country clubs for juveniles. (It is worth remarking here that a good many of the better colleges now forbid students to have automobiles on campus.) And Mr. Freeman quotes Mr. Holman Harvey on such boondoggles: “A powerful group of educators, styled ‘liberal’ or ‘modern,’ and including many school superintendents and school principals, is determined to build luxury schools, regardless of both the country’s tragic classroom shortage and of often insufferable taxes. This group is flourishing on school-tax money in every region of the United States today and is preying on school boards in thousands of communities.”

The same educationists, it may be remarked, also have been building luxury-curricula. Driver-training, for instance, is several times as expensive to teach as is physics or French. This review, however, like Mr. Freeman’s study, can touch only briefly the reasons for the inordinate cost of American public schooling.

Now however desirable popular instruction may be, there is a limit to the amount of money even the richest of states can spend upon any particular activity. State-supported schools are of nineteenth-century origin; they are not among the fundamental activities of the state. (The state’s primary functions are two: the defense of the realm, and the administration of justice.) Already the public schools take the lion’s share—often two-thirds—of local taxation; in some states of America, they take half of the state revenues, as well. (The present financial crisis in Michigan is the direct result of expenditures upon schools and state universities and colleges.) Since the zealots for public-school expenditure have drained local units and state treasuries nearly dry, they now demand federal expenditure, regardless of the political and cultural consequences. As Dr. Luther Weigle writes in his forward to Mr. Freemans’ Federal Aid:

Federal control of education, at any level, would be calamitous. The local control of education is not only in accord with our Constitution and our established policy; it is fundamental to the American type of democracy.

Aside from the injury to decent schooling and to the federal system of government which would result from such a program, it might be financially disastrous to the United States, at least on the scale proposed by the National Education Association. Federal taxes scarcely can be increased without great harm to the economy; and the expected rise of American productivity, during the next decade or so, cannot provide the money which the educationists demand: for though we hope that the national income may increase, at best, from thirty to forty percent over the next decade, the present trend in educational expenditure will bring about a one hundred percent increase in school-cost during the next ten years. Were the federal government to assume this load, then, presumably the funds would have to be deducted from some other governmental activity. But from what? Can we greatly reduce the costs of national defense, in the face of Soviet power? Should we abolish our courts, or our police? Are we to reduce the expenditures for health and hospitals, or for public welfare? As a matter of fact, if we were to abolish the Post Office Department and apply its funds to federal aid for education, this source would supply only a fraction of what the educationists demand.

So we must assume that the costs of vastly increased expenditures upon public schooling would be at the expense of the general American public—and, more particularly, at the expense of other American cultural activities. Such a tax-load for public-schooling would wipe out of existence, through personal and corporate income tax and inheritance tax, the private and parochial schools, and the private and church-connected colleges and universities. It would make virtually impossible all private—or state—expenditures upon good public and domestic architecture, private and public libraries, patronage of the arts and sciences.  By imposing an overwhelming load of taxation, it would efface most civic improvements, and nearly all private leisure and amenities—books, travel, pictures, good music, the theater.

And in compensation for these privations, we would be offered the glorified “child-centered school,” itself a negation of the works of the mind, and dominated by a clique of anti-intellectual administrators. It is possible to bankrupt a nation’s treasury by extravagant expenditure upon alleged “education.” Worse still, it is possible to bankrupt a nation’s culture in the name of schooling.

Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Fall 1959).

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