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Education Reform
Differences in School Spending, but Not Where You’d Think

The Washington Post shared federal findings on state-by-state per-pupil education spending in 2013. There was a wide variation:

“U.S. states’ education spending averaged $10,700 per pupil in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but that average masked a wide variation, ranging from $6,555 per pupil in Utah to $19,818 in New York.

There’s an even larger range separating the lowest- and highest-spending of the nation’s largest 100 school districts: At the low end is Jordan, Utah, at $5,708 per student; at the high end is Boston, Mass., at $20,502.”

However, differences in funding were not quite as stark and geographically-based as one might expect. The state with the highest spending per pupil was blue New York, yes, while the state with the lowest spending was red Utah. However, the red/blue and coast/interior divides did not hold for the rest of the country. Blue California and Washington were in the middle of the list, while red Wyoming and Alaska were among the most profligate education spenders on record.

And to further complicate matters, educational outcomes do not necessarily mirror state spending levels, as a Department of Education study reveals when compared to the federal information in the WaPo article. That study, conducted in 2011, reveals that some states that spend a lot on education (like Alaska) do poorly, while others (like Vermont) do well and others (like New York) have nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to be proud of. Further, it reveals that states that spend roughly the same amount on education per pupil—such as California and Washington—can still have dramatically different outcomes, with Washington in the middle tier and California near the bottom.

All this suggests that the country’s education problems cannot be solved solely by increasing budgets (though it does seem clear that many schools in poor communities don’t get all the resources they need). Going forward, we need to look at which states, and which schools, get better results for less money. We should be asking more questions about why some big spending states get miserable results and why some tightwads have great schools. Meanwhile, we have to face the reality that most American schools work on educational models dating from the last century that aimed to prepare students for careers in the kind of large and stable organizations that are becoming leaner and more nimble by the day.

Given these realities, it seems clear that the smartest education policy for the United States, and for individual states and districts to pursue, is not to go for tighter and more uniform regulation of schools. We need a system that encourages and supports a diversity of educational ideas so that over time we can see which models work best under which conditions. In an ideal world, parents would have several alternative schools from which they could choose based on the school’s local reputation and the fit between the school’s educational approach and the learning style and needs of their particular child.

We need to engage the creativity and flexibility of our society as we look for new models for education in the very different world of 21st century America. That won’t happen if federal and state bureaucrats try to shut down innovation and enforce a single, inflexible model on a system that desperately needs to evolve.

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  • Dale Fayda

    In California, roughly 80% of the annual public school budget, which in itself is around 25% of the state budget, is spend on union salaries, benefits and pensions. Only a small potion of it is actually spent on “the children”.

    • JR

      THE CHILDREN, for the love of everything we hold dear won’t somebody please think of THE CHILDREN!!

      • Dale Fayda

        It shouldn’t take all that much money to teach children to be reasonably competent in reading, spelling and basic math, which is the purpose of a public primary education system. Private and parochial schools all over the country achieve this for a fraction of what public schools spend per pupil.

        But, as usual, whenever the government (progressives) twitches its horny tail, another financial debacle ensues:

        • FriendlyGoat

          You know, Dale, we seldom agree. But I’m going to take a shot here at something we might agree on and ask if you ever wonder something similar.

          WHY, under this idea of a “common” core (small cap mere words) do we not have a literal list of first-grade words that every well-taught first grader should know? The COMPLETE LIST FOR FIRST GRADERS. And why do we not have a basic USA first grade reader that is the size of a medium phone book, printed as cheaply as a phone book with hundreds (not a dozen) stories that use those words? Why doesn’t every family in America have one of these and enlist Mom, Dad, siblings and grandparents to all be “teaching” the same thing? And why not the same for second, third and fourth grade?
          We need an exhaustive list of “the words” woven into “the stories”, woven into “our culture”. This curriculum thing for teaching children to read ought to be straight-forward, cheap and shared. Why isn’t it? Who can get us there?

          • Dale Fayda

            Are you talking about a simplified, “back to basics”, family-centric approach to the first stages of public education? If that’s the case, then yes, we’re are in rare agreement on this. That was exactly the point of my last post.

            “Why isn’t it”? Well, here are just a FEW factors which have moved us away from that as a nation: unionized state labor force (teachers, janitors, administrators, bus drivers, etc.), general breakdown of the nuclear family, markedly pronounced among the black and non-white hispanic population (although this trend is hitting the white and Asian family structure as well), the deliberate flooding of the US with the illiterate dregs of the Third World by this country’s ruling class, the ever expanding influence of the Federal Government on state and local matters through the control of innumerable “educational initiatives” and the disbursement of the funds for them, general trends toward secularization in education, politicising of the curriculum and school funding processes by the progressive grievance industry and so on.

            “Who can get us there”? Beats me. Probably no one, as long the bozo Leviathan of government (at all levels), which wants to see and do everything, yet sees nothing and does everything badly, keeps getting bigger and bigger.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Yes, I am talking about a list/story tool that enables a back-to-basics, family-centered reading for kids in the first four grades. I am talking about having schools use it as well as families, too. I am talking about adults defining and agreeing on a list of a few thousand words per grade, period.

            I also believe in physical schools which will still need teachers, janitors, administrators, bus drivers, and yes, all that “free or reduced-price” food service. Reading is not the only subject, but it IS “the big deal” in the early grades.

            Someone once said we should be suspect of a society which took so long to put wheels on suitcases. We are similarly dumb when everyone near any child cannot know immediately and precisely what the child should be taught with respect to reading. PRECISELY. A cooperative effort with all adults in unison.

            If we didn’t decide to kill each other in the process, maybe you and I could start a “movement” together.

          • JR

            Great idea, in theory. The ugly reality is that it will never ever work in practice for a very politically incorrect reason. Namely, that the intelligence of students is not uniform, but rather follows a normal distribution. Tends to work out that way in large data sets. What level are you aiming at? Most importantly, at what level of government is that level defined? Federal, state, city, county?
            Human beings are too heterogeneous to have a uniform centrally planned reality constructed for them. I believed and continue to believe that the only true way forward is to give parents more choice over where their kids go to school. Give them vouchers that will enable them to do what they think is best for their children. If people believe that they have actual control over things, you will be surprised how even far parents will go to better the lot of their children.

          • FriendlyGoat

            I would want a “word list” and accompanying stories that aim at a very high level for first, second, third and fourth graders. We need to tell every adult what should be expected of children and challenge all of them (us) to “get after it”. Maybe some philanthropist will publish such a thing and “shock” the rest of the country into using it.

          • JR

            Have you ever been to a PTA meeting? Or a Parents Association meeting? I have seen and heard things that would make Machiavelli shudder. 🙂
            Like I said, love the idea in theory. In practice, just don’t see it happening.

          • FriendlyGoat

            No, the PTA folks can’t be expected to agree on the temperature of the room, the arrangement of the folding chairs or the brand of the coffee.
            We really need a Carnegie of old or a Bezos of the present to dream up the list/story concept and spring it on the professional community like Dr. Seuss (or something).

          • fastrackn1

            ” a society which took so long to put wheels on suitcases.”

            I have often wondered about that myself…why did it take so long?

            And why did it take so long to put cup holders in vehicles?….

          • FriendlyGoat

            I don’t know, and this was especially weird when some of them figured out a few decades ago that thoughtful cup holders could actually cinch a sale for this car brand over that car brand.

  • Anthony

    It’s difficult to compare school districts (states) with each other because there is so much that they don’t control – demographics, resources, ability levels, etc. – vis-a-vis educational outcomes. In addition and relevant to last paragraph of above post, between 1989 and 2013 the gap between the least-and most-educated families in wealth (how much a family owns minus its debts) widened dramatically. “Here’s another way to think about the gap: among families with a graduate degree, the chances of having at least $1 million is better than one in three. Among families without a high school diploma, the chances are one in 110.”

    • johngbarker

      Excellent point! The advantage in intellectual capital provided by highly educated parents is even more powerful than the advantages of greater income-even though the two often come in tandem. Our disadvantaged children need much more than free lunches and school choice to overcome their developmental deficits.

      • Anthony

        Thanks, John. And yes you’re right many children from low-income families begin school significantly underprepared and need more…. On some levels your contrast has been identified as either a “virtuous circle” or a “vicious circle” of mutually reinforcing circumstances. But even so, to achieve better outcomes entail as you infer more awareness as well as motivation (assuming both societal inclination and efficiency).

    • JR

      1 in 110? Really? I would have thought the odds would be even worse than that.

  • Andrew Allison

    GIGO. State-by-state per-pupil education spending is meaningless absent adjustment to reflect differences between states; spending as a percentage of state tax revenue for example and adjustment for differences in cost of living (a rough measure of the costs of delivering services). AK and NY, for example, have a COL one-third higher than the US average, while UT’s is 10% lower.

    • Kevin

      Spending should not be adjusted for cost of living. Much of Cost of Living differences represents the desirability of the real estate involved and how many people want to live there. People bidding up NY real estate via a vis Utah real estate represents their desire to live there and is itself a consumer choice, not a cost.

      • Andrew Allison

        True, but the the teachers and administrators (and janitors, etc.) who live in high cost states demand high salaries in order to be able to afford to live there. My point is that per capita school spending by State in-and-of-itself is a meaningless metric.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The major roadblock against any kind of flexibility and parent choice is the Teachers Labor Gangs (Labor Gang Monopolies), which have been violently against any kind of vouchers system or student testing which would identify both incompetent Teachers which should be fired, and super competent Teachers which should be rewarded with large bonuses for merit. Without some kind of the “Feedback of Competition” which forces continuous improvements in Quality, Service, and Price, the Public (Government Monopoly run) Schools system will never improve.

  • Arnold_Laine

    The most glaring example of the discrepancy between amt spent and success is Washington DC. It has the second highest amt spent per student in the nation, and the lowest graduation rate in the nation. If theres no motivation or capacity to learn, throwing money at the problem isn’t going to help, despite the lefts constant cries to over fund education.

  • GS

    The solution is, and has long been, blindingly obvious: rigorous and aggressive streaming by ability, with the unit of cognitive segregation being the school itself [understood as a separate building with a separate student body and a separate teaching staff]. One needs several streams, with the transfer between them made contingent on tests performance. Cast not your pearls [or tax dollars] before the swine.

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