The (likely) grim future of education spending

Not surprisingly, comments on my posting about Kansas City’s heavy education spending and poor educational results honed in on the district’s poor spending choices: buildings over academics, “toys” versus teachers. I agree with all that.

But I also believe that we in the education community need to grapple with some uncomfortable facts. As a nation we’ve increased our spending on education significantly over the past several decades, and we spend more than any other nation. The returns on that investment are not impressive. And with this protracted recession, education spending is likely to remain flat or decline. For all these reasons, the Oliver Twist strategy — “Please, sir, I want some more” — is unlikely to succeed, at least in the foreseeable future.

It’s hard to deliver this message in Utah, where education spending per student persistently ranks at or near the bottom of the fifty states. Still, consider a few pertinent facts, from Stretching the School Dollar, a book published in 2010 by Harvard Education Press:

– “Per pupil spending today is roughly double (in inflation-adjusted terms) what it was in 1983, when the United States was declared a ‘nation at risk’.”

– “Since the early 1970s, growth in the teaching force has outstripped growth in student enrollment by 50%.”

– “In international comparisons of student achievement, even though the United States spent more per student than any other country . . . American fifteen-year olds performed worse than their peers from all but five of the thirty OECD [developed] countries in the most recent Trends in Mathematics and Science Study math assessment; in science they performed worse than students from all but nine nations.”

– “Despite sustained upward revenue growth, National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores have been flat for four decades . . . For a half century nearly a third of the nation’s high school students have failed to graduate.”

– “The share of Americans who say that spending on public schools should increase fell by 15 percentage points between 2008 and 2009, from 61 to 46 percent . . . the grades the public assigned to the nation’s public schools dropped to the lowest levels . . . over the four decades for which comparable data is available.”

– “A 2010 study of state pension funds for teachers and other governmental employees conducted by the PEW Center of the States documented a $452 billion gap between the $2.8 trillion in total long-term liabilities and current funding levels.”

– “The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the number of Americans sixty-five and older will increase by 120 percent by 2050, while the number of five to seventeen year olds will increase by just 75 percent.”

If spending more isn’t feasible, or at any rate likely, how can we spend more intelligently?

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