When we talk dollars and cents in public education, there are a few truisms: teachers are paid too little, schools are underfunded, private and charter schools “drain” funds from traditional districts, and when schools can’t make ends meet it is the result of things done to them and never stuff they do.

The public buys that story and many in the education industry eager to supply endless examples to multiply the trope. Those of us saying school spending is at least equal to school funding as an issue are forced to wear t-shirts that say “I am the day after Christmas.”

If raising concerns about lax controls on public spending makes me December 26th, I’m okay with it.

There are two ways to say we need more money in education. The first is to demand taxpayers give more, and the second is to require elected officials to stop squandering what they already get.

Almost everyone has the former covered, but the latter gets crickets.

I’ve blogged and Tweeted, and begged and pleaded, about the repeating instances of poor stewardship of public dollars. I’ve talked about the millions of public dollars misspent for unneeded technology;$72 million high school football stadium; the $152 million bill New York pays for teachers that don’t teach; the $300 million Los Angeles Unified School District paid out in sex abuse settlements; the school board that signed an irresponsible decade-long teachers’ contract with 4% raises locked in; the high school rebuild that started at $30 million for a 1,600 seat school but ballooned to $250 million due to poor planning and limp oversight; or the school district under scrutiny for waste and “cronyism” in its $300 million bonding program.

How can anyone be serious about school funding without being serious about mismanagement of funds?

While politically polarized people take the roles of mother and father, liberal and conservative, addressing the questions concerning whether or not schools get enough money. A third party needs to raise questions about how we allocate existing funds to serve the needs of the least of them, the familiar faces at the bottom of the well, those who are at the wrong end of some Savage Inequalities and captive to schools of low quality, low expectation, and high mortality.

We can’t let the education establishment continue writing checks that marginalized children, families, and communities can never cash.

In a 2010 review of Marguerite Roza’s book “Educational Economics: Where Do School Funds Go?” Jay Greene pulled on Roza’s thread about how inequities in public education caused by how districts allocate money can’t be corrected merely by putting more money in the system.

The way we use money in school systems works against our stated goals.

The main finding of Roza’s explorations is that education dollars are allocated in ways that are sharply at odds with the stated priorities of public school systems. Education leaders say they want to devote greater funding to low-income students, but within most school districts per-pupil spending is higher at schools with more-advantaged students. Education leaders say they want to focus resources on the core subjects of math, reading, history, and science, but per-pupil spending tends to be much higher for electives, extracurricular activities, and sports. Education leaders say they want to emphasize remedial instruction to help lagging students catch up, but in most school districts per-pupil spending is significantly greater for Advanced Placement (AP) and gifted classes than for remedial ones.

The most insidious misdirection of money comes from an area almost no one with political ambitions wants to touch, and that’s how a “uniform salary schedule” for teachers creates a perverse system whereby poor schools with younger less expensive teachers subsidize the more costly and experienced teachers who tend to migrate to low-poverty schools.

Greene would likely disagree with my shorthand there, but here’s how he puts it:

In virtually every public school throughout the country, teachers are paid primarily according to their credentials, seniority, and “additional” work assignments and not at all according to subject taught, number of students served, or the difficulty or importance of their assignments. The net effect of this arrangement is that labor costs, the bulk of per-pupil spending, are distributed by formulas that are completely unaligned with stated priorities.

His phrasing of “unaligned with state priorities” is a scholarly way of saying the way we compensate teachers is jacked up.

I can make it worse too.

Lisa Snell writes about the oxygen that teacher pensions steal from budgets in a piece for The Press-Enterprise, and considering what her California example means for the state of educational equity nationally gives me hives.

Pensions are that wonky area of education that defy easy explanation, but the subject is pregnant with a great reckoning.

According to Snell “California schools may have to use half of the new state education funding that they’re supposed to get over the next three years to cover their growing pension obligations, which now stand at $107 billion.”

Snell says:

While California has directed more than $20 billion in new funding to California schools since 2013, this money isn’t necessarily reaching the schools and classrooms where the most-disadvantaged students enroll. A 2017 Education-Trust West report noted the districts with the highest concentrations of lower-income students were getting more funding than wealthier school districts but that individual, high-poverty schools within those higher-funded districts were not seeing the extra money. The report found districts were using the extra funding — intended for disadvantaged students — to instead reduce district-wide budget holes on things like health care and pensions.

It’s a mess.

Everywhere I go people talk about equity to the point that the word is now like Aloha. It means hello, goodbye, and a many other things depending on the context. Yet, however we define the concept it will never be fulfilled by fighting solely for more dollars while ignoring that those dollars aren’t reaching children who desperately need them.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.