Public schools

Public Funding for Schools Has Increased for 30 Years. Why Doesn't UVA's Education Dean Know That?

The Washington Post finally corrected Dean Robert Pianta's erroneous op-ed.


In a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, Robert Pianta—dean of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education and Human Development—claimed that "giving public schools more money" is the one trick education reformers haven't yet tried.

He's wrong, and The Washington Post has finally corrected his claim.

In his piece, Pianta said that per-pupil education funding has decreased since the late 1980s. "Schools have been starved for funds," he complains, and things only became worse in recent years:

This lack of investment was only compounded by the Great Recession, which prompted state legislatures to shift already limited funds and sources of revenue from districts to balance their budgets and bridge spending gaps elsewhere. Nonwhite communities and underserved rural and urban areas particularly suffered the consequences, languishing as a result of regressive funding formulas tied to property taxes. To this day, funding levels have failed to recover from this raid on our schools' financial reserves.

This is a shocking claim, writes the Cato Institute's Neal McCluskey, in that it's completely wrong.

K-12 spending since 1979-80, inflation-adjusted
Via Neal McCluskey / Cato Institute

"This spending data is well-known among wonks, and while it is open to some interpretation, I can find nothing supporting Pianta's claim," writes McCluskey.

Indeed, as is evident from the graph above, inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending has actually increased dramatically over time.

"Robert Pianta's claim is incorrect regardless of how the data is sliced," writes my colleague Corey DeAngelis, director of school choice reform at the Reason Foundation, in a piece for The Washington Examiner. "According to the National Center for Education Statistics' database, inflation-adjusted education funding increased by at least 36% since 1989—whether you look at state, local, federal, or total dollars per pupil. The increases are much larger if you look at overall spending amounts rather than per-pupil totals."

The Washington Post has finally conceded defeat and posted the following correction at the top of the article:

Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that, adjusting for constant dollars, public funding for schools had decreased since the late 1980s. This is not the case. In fact, funding at the federal, state and local levels has increased between the 1980s and 2019.

I emailed Pianta to ask whether he thought this correction undercut the op-ed's argument, but did not immediately receive a response.

I can understand not knowing the exact numbers, but it strikes me as extremely disappointing that the dean of a prestigious education school would not be aware of the general trajectory of public education funding.