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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