Why is education always the first thing cut in government budget?

When a town or state government wants to save money, or lower taxes, they always take that money from the schools. You want to save taxpayer money, then lower your own salary before cutting anyone else’s. There is a proposal here in Maine for the state to cut school funding in order to lower taxes on small businesses. Our schools are already in rough shape. Why are schools always the first thing cut?

Cutting (or threatening to) something critical forces the taxpayers to cough up more dough.

The effects are typically longer term than other potential cuts that might have effects today.

Education is one of, if not the largest, expediture for lots of state and local governments. Also, there’s a real temptation in our country to blame many of the ills of society on the educational system. The dislike for public sector unions bleeds over into a dislike of teachers, even in states like NC without public sector unions.

Poor people use public education. Rich people send their kids to private school.

I question the premise. Cite that education is always the first thing cut?

There’s also a sense that teaching is “cushy” job, which appeals to a certain sector of voters. (They get summers off and only work until 3!!)

There is also the view that schools tend to spend money on things they don’t really need. I somewhat agree with this.

(beware, walking through snow both ways story ahead)

I attended a very cheap private school (because the teaching at the public school was even worse). We learned in a old, white painted cinder-block wall buildings. We had 25 year old textbooks. Our cafeteria food could be described as cruel and unusual punishment (those were the two options). There were no art classes. Only 3 AP classes were offered. I think my desks were probably used by the founding fathers.

But you know what? We got a great education. We scored way above our state’s average in standardized test scores.*

When I went to the public school my senior year to take the SAT, I was flabbergasted at how nice their school was. I walked through cafeteria and was blown away by all their options. Everything was newer and nicer.

However, all that money did not always reflect in their actual education (Ahem, I knew a lot of people that came from that school.) As part of a project in college, I researched and found out that the public school districts where I had lived received twice as much money per student as my private school tuition. Twice!**

The thing I took away from that was that money doesn’t necessarily buy a good education. I look at public schools today and am still amazed at how nice they are. Around here, the facilities look pretty decent. The kids have tons of electives they get to choose from, there are gobs of after-school activities that I only dreamed of. Do they really need all that? I have no doubt that it is nice to have, but I am not buying the fact that if they had a 10% cut that that is the reason why little Timmy is coming out of high school an idiot.

I think the education has much more to do with the students (and their home) than anything else.***

Trying to fix that with the school system is, in many ways, pouring money down a hole.

  • Since I am posting on education, I am sure my post will be littered with grammatical errors.
    ** I realize that public high schools have to pay for a lot of things that privates do not. Like free lunches, teaching special needs kids, etc. But my opinion is unchanged. Money does not always equal education.
    *** This can affect the school budget in multiple ways. I know that the private school teachers were paid WAY less than the public school teachers. More than one of my teachers said they were willing to take a pay cut in order to teach better students. If the public schools have to to pay really good teachers to handle classes of misbehaving, non-motivated students, well, that is going to cost money.

Same reason people rob banks, that is where the money is. Maine has a 6.5 billion dollar budget. 2.875 billion of that is education spending. That is 43.7% of the budget and twice as much as is spent on everything else except healthcare combined. If the entire amount of money budgeted for the legislature was spent on education instead it would increase the education budget by 1.78%.

The first thing cut quietly is maintenance. Nobody notices that.

Our schools are in rough shape, but they seem to have plenty money to bus kids all around the state to play games, and even to call out the police and fire departments at 6:00AM to escort them with sirens blaring (very annoying to anyone who has to work nights).

That said, I think a big part of the reason schools get cut first is because they are the one of the largest chunks of the budget, especially at the local level. I think roughly 60% of the money my town spends is on education. Of course people are going to look at the biggest target first, even if it ends up being penny-wise, pound foolish over time.

I’d be in favor of budget cuts, if it affected only extra-curricular activities. Playtime should not be taxpayer subsidized, in my opinion. The taxpayers didn’t buy me a Super Nintendo when I was a kid. Why should they buy footballs, jerseys, helmets, and arenas? Can’t kids just go outside and play these days? Or does everything have to be taxpayer subsidized?

The average American can’t even speak more than one language, at an age where bilingualism is an incredibly valuable skill in a global economy. But by Cthulhu, we must make sure they can throw a football!

You were lucky to have snow! I had to walk uphill, both ways, barefoot, on glare ice to go to school in a cardboard box.

Libraries are also a favorite early target of cuts, because they’re something that the general public interacts with and will notice. It’s the “pay me or I’ll shoot this cute dog” approach.

Where I coach, even the football team does fundraising though I think they are close to breaking even on gate receipts. Probably basketball, too.

The rest of the sports do get a budget for equipment and coaches pay but a lot of fundraising is needed as the budget doesn’t cover the needs.

I doubt that education is reliably the first thing cut.

But what the OP (and many other people, for that matter) doesn’t understand is that (A) education spending tends to be inefficient, and (B) there is very little or no correlation between per-student levels of spending and results.

Here’s a chart showing both the raw numbers and inflation-adjusted spending. Have we seen rising results? Not really.

Cost vs. results.

Cost vs. enrollment.

Federal spending vs. results.

Scroll about halfway down for a chart showing what each state has spent per-pupil over the last several years.

Notice above that Colorado spends about HALF of what Connecticut spends. What are the results?

Well, Colorado ranks higher than Connecticut in school system quality.

Colorado’s 4th-grade math scores are higher than Connecticut’s.

New York and Arizona have identical 4th-grade math scores despite New York’s $19,818 per pupil vs. Arizona’s $7,208.

Just as a data point, but for a tremendous number of schools, football is a revenue stream that subsidizes most of the rest of the athletic program in addition to other programs.

What teachers do you know that “only work until 3!!” That’s a vile and pernicious myth that really needs to be killed. It’s about as stupid as saying because a restaurant or store opens at 11 or closes at 11 that everyone just goes right home then, and doesn’t continue to do stuff like cleaning up, inventory, prep work for the next day, etc…

To the OP’s question, I think education budgets tend to be in the cross-hairs, because they’re large, and they don’t show results that are measurable in any kind of time frame relevant to the politicians running city governments. So if they cut the single biggest line item by 10%, the effects of that decrease aren’t something that’s going to come back and haunt them in their capacity as politicians.

Well, it’s been years since I’ve seen a highschool football game, but last I went, there was no admission fee, so I’m not entirely sure where the revenue is coming from. Universities make money on their sports programs, I understand, but I’m not so sure about high schools.

That would be a data point if there were stats to back it up.

They don’t work until 3, but they do work significantly fewer hours than other salaried, college-educated professionals (cite, cite). The myth is that teachers work long hours for a pittance. That’s what their unions say,


One reason school budgets get cut is that when push comes to shove, students and parents will participate in fundraisers, and there are private grants schools can get. I save boxtops for my son’s school, and have family, friends, and co-workers without children giving me boxtops to send to my son’s school. We shlep around selling all kinds of crap to raise money for this or that project, and pony up our own cash playing stupid game at the “school carnival,” which is yet another fundraiser. I let my kid participate in a program that was part of a grant application. I live in David Letterman’s home state, and our school district gets some kind of grant from him. We also have some grant for meeting “excellence” goals. It’s a freaking elementary school.

Everyone who talks big about valuing education (and who isn’t a politician) gets told to put up or shut up, eventually, which is why people like Letterman have grants.

If something else gets cut, you won’t be able to get the people who use the service to come out and fundraise the way you get people to fundraise for schools, and you won’t get people establishing private grants for public services.

So schools it is.