I’ve long read the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal for its top-flight investigative reporting. The most recent issue includes an intriguing article, provocatively entitled “Better Schools, Fewer Dollars”, by University of Colorado education professor Marcus Winters.
Since Utah isn’t going to top any lists of education big-spenders, many of you will be irritated by his analysis. But he presents some numbers that, in my view at least, would-be education reformers need to take seriously.
Here’s just a taste:
Over the last four decades, public education spending has increased rapidly in the United States. According to the Department of Education, public schools spent, on average, $12,922 per pupil in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available. Adjusting for inflation, that’s more than double the $6,402 per student that public schools spent in 1975.
Despite that doubling of funds, just about every measure of educational outcomes has remained stagnant since 1975, though some have finally begun to inch upward over the last few years. Student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—the only consistently observed measure of student math and reading achievement over the period—have remained relatively flat since the mid-1970s. High school graduation rates haven’t budged much over the last 40 years, either.
Professor Winters also draws some startling comparisons between spending in some big urban districts (again, these numbers will boggle the minds of Utah educators).
For further evidence that hiking spending produces few educational outcomes, look at how private schools compare with public ones. That $12,922, remember, is a national average; spending in urban public school systems is often far higher. The Cato Institute’s Adam Schaeffer recently calculated total expenditures per pupil for public school systems in America’s five largest metropolitan areas and Washington, D.C. Washington spent the most—an average of $28,000 per public school student, which was more than the maximum tuition charged to attend such prestigious private schools as Lowell School ($25,120), Sheridan School ($24,700), and Georgetown Visitation School ($20,600), and only slightly below the maximum tuition charged at St. Albans ($31,428), National Cathedral School ($30,700), and Georgetown Day ($29,607). Does the handsome funding of urban public schools produce results? Not according to the NAEP, which shows, for instance, that more than 25 percent of public school eighth-graders are reading below the “basic” level, compared with only 8 percent of private school students.
Obviously, it’s misleading simply to compare the performance of private and public school students without adjusting for the type of student enrolled in each sector. A student whose parents can afford to pay private school tuition is likely to score higher on standardized tests than the average public school student, regardless of the quality of the school.
The article also takes issue with the “sufficiency” lawsuits that have challenged education spending levels in several states. Again, I’m impressed that the author marshals solid data to support his arguments, and acknowledges the limitations of that data as well.
Since I don’t think the economy or the political climate are going to permit big cash infusions for education any time soon, I find his message that we can use less expensive choice strategies encouraging. Many of you, I know from experience, will find his arguments outrageous instead. Let the debate begin . . . but I do think Professor Winters presents some data that deserves serious consideration.