Money can’t buy me . . . learning?

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.




  1. Grant Stoddard

    Of course just throwing money into education is not going to just improve student performance. Effective instruction, classroom and school management, use of technology, and a willingness on the part of parents and students to work with highly-qualified teachers are the keys to the improvement we seek. However, appropriate training and the acquisition of said technology, have a price tag. Not to mention employees who are equipped with all of the training and tools they need and are paid well are going to do a better job all around.

  2. Ryan Dubois of Tremonton, Utah


    Did the author include a comparison of real estate expenses from 1975 to today? Was there a similar cost comparison in electricity costs? Was a comparison of transportation costs made between busing students in 1975 versus 2012? Was there a comparison of living wages and/or buying power between the average salary in 1975 and 2012? Was there a cost comparison of school supplies made between the two time periods?

    The point I’m getting at here is that the author points out that the average cost to educate a child for a year has doubled since 1975. Academic growth remains roughly the same. Is the cost to reward merely a reflection of the increased expenses of living as opposed to what things cost 40 years ago?

    Here is a concept to chew on: Utah is educating students today at roughly the same cost of the national average from 40 years ago. Considering all of the inflationary costs of real estate, salaries, supplies, and other goods, one would think our education in Utah today would be nothing better than third world. The educational workforce and parents of children in Utah should be highly commended for the outstanding work they are doing with such scant resources.

  3. Howard Beale

    I know per pupil spending has gone up a lot but how about teacher salaries as adjusted for inflation. They haven’t, in fact teachers are suffering worse now than ever. Bottom line, the expenses in education have come in administration, testing and lots of other innovations that haven’t really worked. They haven’t gone into teacher salaries to keep good teachers and attract high quality college grads. The chickens have come home to roost. Grant is on to some things above. It is a question of resources and where they are applied. But the fact of the matter is, in everything in education, the #1 determinant is the teacher and nothing has been invested in the teacher as far as his/her salary and benefits go. Happier teachers make better teachers…

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