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Chris Cargill: Local school spending surges, but outcomes remain stagnant

By Chris Cargill

Fewer students. Worse outcomes. Higher spending.

When the board of directors for Spokane Public Schools approved its latest budget in August, it made history. SPS now spends more than a half-billion dollars.

The latest SPS budget, in fact, allocates $534 million. That’s 44% higher than just six years ago.

The higher spending isn’t because SPS is educating more students. In fact, last year’s enrollment was down more than 1,500 students from the prior year. This year’s enrollment is also likely to be down, as some parents resist mask restrictions and divisive critical race theory lessons. But even if student numbers stay the same, SPS will be spending nearly $19,000 per student, per year. For a classroom of 20 students, that is more than $374,000.

The higher spending isn’t because SPS is increasing student outcomes. In fact, the state’s latest report card shows less than half of SPS students are meeting learning goals in math and science.

So why is SPS spending so much more? The answers are sometimes hidden in a mountain of paperwork or a maze of policy.

Consider this fact: Less than half of the new SPS budget is being spent on basic education. School district leaders are also cutting funding for vocational instruction, alternative learning and dropout re-engagement.

In many ways, the higher total spending and worsening outcomes are because unions demand it and taxpayers let it happen. Where is the accountability?

Most school officials complain they don’t receive enough money, but then spend as if they do.

For example, SPS leaders gave in to the local teacher’s union and agreed to a 13% pay hike in 2018. Days later, they announced a huge budget deficit. Then, under the threat of drastic cuts because of poor district budgeting, Spokane voters last February approved another SPS levy increase that locks in even higher property taxes for three more years. Again, with little accountability.

Considering the high spending and dismal outcomes, many parents are saying enough is enough. Over the past 18 months during the middle of the COVID-19 shutdowns, tens of thousands of parents statewide have removed their children from K-12 schools.

The challenge is that unions have convinced voters that they must approve spending more on schools. Instead, we should be spending the money on the children.

Education funding is meant for educating students – not for protecting a particular institution. As education researcher Corey DeAngelis says, “We should fund students, not systems.”

If parents choose to send their child to a public charter school, private school or online program, the $19,000 that the school district would have received should follow the student to the alternative.

If you are one of the many parents juggling working from home and online schooling, wouldn’t it be helpful to have some extra cash specifically designated for tutoring, computers, supplies and other items crucial to your child’s educational needs?

This isn’t a radical idea. Eighteen states have added new programs to fund students, not systems. Idaho has that popular program giving high school students $4,125.

It’s also something most Americans support. More than 78% in a recent poll support funding students instead of systems. And legislators in more than half of the states have introduced bills to enact or expand programs that fund students instead of institutions.

In Washington state, a recent poll showed nearly 70% would, at the very least, support giving the families of special needs students access to education savings accounts.

Funding students instead of systems is an approach that should sound familiar. We already do it via Pell Grants and the GI Bill for higher education. We also have taxpayer-funded pre-K programs such as Head Start. And food stamps and Medicaid funding similarly go to families who then choose where they want to spend their grocery and health care budgets.

Spokane-area families deserve this option, too – especially from a district spending a half-billion dollars while providing few results.

Chris Cargill is the Eastern Washington director for Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization with offices in Spokane, Tri-Cities, Seattle and Olympia. Online at

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