During a recent media conference call, the education secretary made this outlandish claim:
The vast majority of districts around the country have literally been cutting for five, six, seven years in a row. And, many of them, you know, are through, you know, fat, through flesh, and into bone.... [M]any folks in the American public don't understand how tough these cuts have been for a number of years in a row.
Somebody definitely doesn't understand public school spending trends, and that somebody is Arne Duncan. How many of America's 14,000 odd public school districts have cut spending for seven years in a row? Seven. How many have cut spending for even five years in a row? 87... out of 14,000. You do not need to be wearing a pocket-protector while calculating satellite orbital velocities on your shiny new Droid X to see that neither of these numbers represents even one percent of the nation's school districts. And yet, somehow, the United States Secretary of Education is under the impression that they represent "the vast majority of districts." Um... NO. [These figures were computed by my intrepid research assistant Ian Hinsdale. Merci Ian].
What would possess Arne Duncan to depart so extravagantly from reality? Perhaps he has been duped by the chicanery that passes itself off as public school district budgeting. Clearly, only a tiny percentage of districts have actually cut spending for even five years in a row. But when public school districts make claims about "budget cuts" they are not using that term in the way that you, or I, or perhaps even the Secretary of Education expect. They are not comparing current year spending to the previous year's spending. What they're doing is comparing the approved current year budget to the budget that they initially dreamed about having in an idealized, make-believe world. Unicorn-per-pupil ratios in these initial budgets have been known to exceed one. It is considered impolite when drafting them to draw attention to such niceties as the actual amount of taxpayer dollars available.
Back in the real world, a k-12 public education costs 4 times as much as it did in 1970, adjusting for inflation: $150,000 versus the $38,000 it cost four decades ago (in constant 2009 dollars). The extra $10 billion that secretary Duncan, the Obama administration, and the congressional majority just threw at the public school monopoly did not serve children or the U.S. economy. They must dearly be hoping that the American public never hears the real story.