Media/Academic Ignorance Turned up to 11

Yesterday I asked the question, derived in part from a Poynter Institute article, “Do Journalists Know Less Than They Used To?” Yes, questions with such obvious answers hardly need asking, but who knew the Washington Post would step up with an astonishing confirmation of media ignorance, with a special bonus of academic ignorance thrown in just for fun.

Last week the Post ran an article by Robert C. Pianta, who is the dean of the Curry School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia (keep this title in mind for the moment). The headline is: The one education reform that would really help? Giving public schools more money.

Pianta thinks a lot of education reform efforts of the last generation, like No Child Left Behind, have been ineffective or wrongheaded, and he may well be right about this. But his main argument is that public education has been “starved for resources”:

The perception that education is in crisis has contributed to a fundamentally distorted view of the system that ignores the biggest problem plaguing U.S. public schools: a lack of resources. . .

Schools have been starved for funds even as mounting research illustrated that greater investments in public schools pave the way for students to realize lasting academic gains, particularly if we place an emphasis on the early years and grades.

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. (Emphasis added.)

It turns out you can look up the data on this, as I did by going to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Table 236.55, “Total and Current Expenditures Per Pupil in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.” Here’s the chart of inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending starting in 1965 (the year the federal government got into the school funding business big time) to 2016 that I generated from the data:

As you can easily see (and as is well-known by education policy wonks, but apparently not by deans of the education school at the University of Virginia), real per-pupil spending has tripled since the 196os. In fact, the original version of this article included this sentence (now deleted):

In fact, public funding for schools has actually decreased since the 1980s, adjusting for constant dollars.

The decline in education spending that occurred on the state level during the Great Recession (when state spending for all purposes was under pressure) has been reversed. Dean Pianta’s claim that “funding levels have failed to recover from this raid” is as flatly untrue as is his now deleted claim that school funding since the 1980s had actually declined. Democracy may die in darkness at the Post, but truthfulness dies in the ignorance and laziness of newsrooms.

How does a dean of an education school not know this? How does a Washington Post editor not know how to check this out?

Well, behold, the Washington Post has offered this correction:

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.

Since the incorrect funding claim is the heart of the story, shouldn’t the story be retracted? Why should anyone take the article seriously when its major premise is wrong? And still the media wonder why the public holds them in such low regard, and why the “fake news” label has stuck.

Notice: All comments are subject to moderation. Our comments are intended to be a forum for civil discourse bearing on the subject under discussion. Commenters who stray beyond the bounds of civility or employ what we deem gratuitous vulgarity in a comment — including, but not limited to, “s***,” “f***,” “a*******,” or one of their many variants — will be banned without further notice in the sole discretion of the site moderator.