Public School Spending

Americans are continually talking about the nation’s deplorable state of public education. Solutions to the problem abound, some of which include school choice, longer school days, smaller class sizes, and more teacher accountability. One of the most commonly proposed solutions to this problem, however, is to spend more money.

Because we care about the future of our children and want them to have a good education, spending more money for schools seems like a good idea. But does more money really provide the best form of education possible?

The modern era of the American public school system began in the late 19th century. Around that time, spending per child averaged a little over $150 dollars and was largely financed by local funds. A century later, that number increased to nearly $5,000 and schools were relying more and more on state and even federal tax dollars.

Much of this dramatic spending increase occurred in the decades after 1970, as schools sought to hire more teachers with advanced degrees, reduce class sizes, and build a larger administrative staff. Thus, the money influx did not necessarily go directly for instruction purposes, a fact which could partially explain the stagnant reading, math, and science scores the U.S. continues to experience.

Spending per student is sometimes difficult to determine, largely because states fail to have a clear, updated, and accurate reporting system. As a result, the general public often believes education spending is much lower than the true amount.

Today the Department of Education reports public school spending to be over $10,000 per student. The spending of individual school districts, though, is often thousands more than that. For instance, the Minneapolis Public School District spends over $20,000 per child.

Approximately three-fifths of the national spending per student average goes to instruction purposes. The rest goes to items such as facilities, transportation, administration, and staff costs.

To some, $10,000 per child seems like a lot of money to be spending, particularly when many private and home schools spend far less and generally get better academic results. Because of this, it is suggested that minimally increasing class sizes and providing incentives for talented teachers who do their job effectively would be a way to save money and boost achievement, particularly in a time when budgets are strained. It is also noted that other nations which spend less than the U.S. on education do much better academically, suggesting that spending is not a panacea for education problems.

Far more common, however, is the view touted by many politicians during election season, namely, that our schools are suffering for lack of money and the only way to keep up with the rest of the world is to avoid cutting spending. Furthermore, it is argued that public schools need more money than private and home schools because they offer extras, such as special education, honors programs, and transportation services.

To help you determine whether or not the public schools spend too much or too little, this library section examines the history and expansion of public school spending, while also offering a variety of facts and figures on the state of spending in the current education system.

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Commentary or Blog Post

"For the 2012-2013 school year, Minneapolis Public Schools budgeted an average of $23,020 per student."

In this piece, Andrew Coulson declares that Arne Duncan misrepresented the facts when describing current education budgets. Duncan alleged that lack of funding caused many school districts to cut their budgets many years in a row. Coulson...

In the eyes of Rick Hess, the perceived financial crunch of 2010 will affect public education budgets for many years to come. Hess declares that the budget crunch "is emblematic of a larger problem: Education leaders plead poverty even as they refuse to take a hard look at the way they...

As almost everyone knows, "[s]pending per student has increased markedly over time." According to Skandera and Sousa, these spending increases are a direct result of more special education, more teachers with more education, and higher administrative costs....

According to Rick Hess, one of the biggest areas in which schools can cut costs is in the realm of teachers. Hess challenges data about small classroom sizes and suggests that the large spending areas of "teacher salaries and benefits" could be reduced by giving each teacher two more...

"On average, it costs $10,615 to send a kid to public school for a year. (That's federal, state and local government spending combined.)"

This piece offers a brief study on the public's perception of school spending. According to Howell and West, the surveyed public consistently underestimates the amount of per pupil spending by large numbers. The public also vastly underestimates the salaries of...

Expanding on the mantra that public schools need more money in order to properly educate children, Brian Lipsett reports on budget cuts that are forcing teacher layoffs. Lipsett rails against the idea of school consolidation and draws a...

In the days preceding the 2010 midterm elections, President Obama warned that electing a Republican majority would bring major cuts in education spending. This article explains how the President reaffirmed his commitment to increasing education...

"The Wall Street Journal reports today that according to the latest Bureau of the Census figures there was a 0.4% drop in nominal U.S. public school operating spending from 2010 to 2011."

According to Lisa Snell, accounts of school financial mismanagement only seem to be taken seriously by the media when they happen in private schools. Snell notes that public schools have seen their share of financial...

According to Adam Schaeffer, "[s]chool districts often exclude major expenses — like capital costs for new buildings or interest payments on the debt they carry — when calculating the per-student spending figure they publicize." Schaeffer uses a Los Angeles school...

"Last week, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman tried to sell the merits of second 'stimulus' by claiming education spending is being slashed, to the detriment of American students. He contends that education has suffered because of skepticism about the merits of government spending."

"In 2011, for the first time in decades, the amount the nation’s schools spent per student fell. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest release on education spending, the nation’s schools spent $10,560 per student in 2011, down from $10,600 per student in 2010. In most states, however, spending increased."

Reporting on the federal stimulus infusion of funds into the nation's public schools, this piece observes the relatively little amount of money which went to promoting reforms. According to Chandler, much of the stimulus money was...

This article responds to Cato Institute analyst Adam Schaeffer's...

This opinion piece describes the costs of public education in Virginia. Schaeffer compares these costs to the general cost of private schools and finds that public schools are "88 percent more" expensive. With this in mind,...

This piece gives a quick number crunching overview of the cost of D.C. public schools. Coulson informs his audience how much money the schools receive from various organizations - such as the federal government and the local school district –...

According to James Guthrie, the presence of a recession does nothing to curb spending on public education. Guthrie describes how the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act injected a variety of federal funds into the education system, causing...

This piece reports on the push for more public school funding in Utah. According to the state's school superintendent, "'There will be unacceptable declines in the quality of...

With tongue in cheek humor, Andrew Coulson compares the public school system to the auto industry. Coulson presents a brief history of the public school system's quest for federal money, and then suggests that if the "Big Three automakers" had followed their lead, they...

Chart or Graph

"Table 1-9A shows the percent changes in a variety of expenditures per student, between FY 03-04 and FY 08-09, compared to the percent change in California Per Capita Personal Income (PCPI) for the same period."

"Schools are highly resource dependent, but they are not dependent on a single source. The distribution of revenue-raising responsibility over federal, state, and local governments contributes to education revenue stability (see Figure 4)."

"Many people believe that lack of funding is a problem in public education,...but historical trends show that American spending on public education is at an all-time high."

"Expenditures per pupil for secondary grades averaged $8,157 in 1999, 3rd out of 26 nations. (See table 4.7 and figure 4.3.)"

"On a per-pupil basis, real federal spending on K-12 education has also increased significantly over time. (See Chart 3.)"

Per-Student Spending Remains More Than 10% Lower Than 2008 in 13 States.

2011 fiscal year education revenues for each state in the U.S.

"Over time, the source of public school funding has increasingly shifted from primarily local funding toward state and national funding."

"Another finding demonstrates that individual families do not need the massive budget of a public school to provide their children with a quality education."

"Real spending per student—that is spending per student adjusted to remove general inflation—has grown steadily and dramatically. From a spending of $164/student in 1890, the average for the United States quintupled roughly every fifty years, reaching $4,622/student in 1990 (see figure 1)."

This chart comes from a study that traced public school spending in five key areas in the United States. The study found that public school expenditures are actually much higher than reported to the public. This particular graph charts the expenditures of Los Angeles and two of its surrounding school districts.

A map of 2010 spending per student by state.

"Chart 4 compares real per-pupil expenditures with American students test scores on the long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading examination from 1970 to 2004."

"Federal spending on Education has also increased dramatically, as shown in Chart 2. Combined federal support and estimated federal tax expenditures for elementary and secondary education has increased by 138 percent (adjusted for inflation) since 1985."

This chart "shows the performance over time of U.S. 17-year-olds on the 'Long Term Trends' testing program of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

"Between 1970 and 1995, per-pupil expenditures increased by more than 75 percent. During that time period, the pupil-teacher ratio decreased by 25 percent, the percentage of teachers with advanced degrees doubled, and median teacher experience nearly doubled."

"How well informed is the public about these financial commitments? Not very. Among those asked without the prompt listing possible expenses, the median response was $2,000, or less than 20 percent of the true amount being spent in their districts."

Analysis Report White Paper

The report traces monetary increases in areas such as teacher and administration salaries and benefits, material costs, and various other maintenance and operational fees, and then compares those increases to the ones in California's 'Per Capita Personal Income.'"

Public schools are usually the most costly item in state and local budgets. Yet despite tremendous and persistent spending growth in the last half-century, the public vastly underestimates the true cost of public education.

"Debates about how to improve public Education in America often focus on whether government should spend more on education. Federal and state policymakers proposing new Education programs often base their arguments on the need to provide more resources to schools to improve opportunities for students."

This report pulls together the latest information on home education statistics in the United States. Included in the report are many fascinating charts and graphs which compare homeschoolers to their public school counterparts.

This paper reports on the details behind the desegregation failures in Kansas City. According to the author, the Kansas City desegregation experiment was originally intended to prove that the progressive philosophies of more money, mixed races, smaller class sizes, and state of the art equipment were the keys to academic success.

States' new budgets are providing less per-pupil funding for kindergarten through 12th grade than they did six years ago — often far less. The reduced levels reflect not only the lingering effects of the 2007-09 recession but also continued austerity in many states.

"School Figures presents the most recent statistics, along with historical trends and cross-sectional comparisons, and thus provides a clear, factual picture of today's educational landscape. Organized in a concise and understandable format featuring numerous tables, charts, and graphs, the book provides a unique visual picture of the facts on K–12 issues."

This study examines the economic effects of increased public school spending on communities. Leaning favorably toward the idea of increased spending, the author argues that tax increases for education purposes help create jobs and foster a more productive and desirable local atmosphere.

After quickly tracing the rising emphasis on education and its corresponding spending push over the last century, Eric Hanushek presents three reasons for the high cost of today's public education. Hanushek believes these three reasons can be classified as expanded special education programs, rising teacher salaries, and more administrative positions.

"Although public schools are usually the biggest item in state and local budgets, spending figures provided by public school officials and reported in the media often leave out major costs of education and thus understate what is actually spent."

Hanushek and Rivkin break down a one-hundred-year span in American education spending in this piece. Tracing key spending developments and increases in each time period, the authors determine that declining population growth, expansion of special education policies, and teacher salaries were the largest contributors to rising spending.

A sequel to the report Where's the Money Gone?, this piece traces education spending levels from 1991 to 1996 in nine school districts across the country. The original report determined that much of the increase in school spending over the previous 25 years was attributable to the rise of special education instruction.

This piece takes a different course in determining school spending increases. Instead of using the CPI to determine inflation in education spending, Rothstein and Miles use what they believe is a more accurate measure of inflation in education costs.

Video/Podcast/Media

In this podcast from the Cato Institute, Education Policy Analyst Adam Schaeffer discusses the culture of wasteful spending and deceptive accounting practices that run rampant in America's public education system.

"'Finland is spending a third less than us on education. What they're doing is changing the way they treat teachers. They hire the best and they make them work for their salary. They pay them on merit,' said de Rugy. 'Spending per student has tripled in the last 40 years and achievement scores in math, reading and science have remained completely flat.' The problem, says de Rugy, is that the...

"Health care is the budget buster at the federal level, but K-12 education is what's poised to bankrupt state and local governments. Spending on public education eats up around half of the general budget in most states, and it's by far the priciest single item. For every dollar raised by state and local governments for Medicaid, three dollars go to K-12 schooling....

Is public school spending as efficient as it could be? Are we spending more on facilities than we are on teaching children?

This video reports on an audit conducted on New York's schools. According to the video, NY lost many dollars to mismanagement and corruption that should have been spent on educating New York's children.

This video offers the following "[t]hree facts about education spending and academic performance:

1) American public education spending is at an all-time high.
2) Decades of increased spending hasn't significantly improved performance.
...

This video clip from The Cartel explains the huge amount of money being spent in New Jersey's inner city classrooms. According to the clip, much of the money goes to areas such as teacher tenure and administrative costs. This video also demonstrates how public perception of per-pupil expenditures is far below actual data.

This video briefly explains the details in Schaeffer's report on the actual costs of public schools. Schaeffer argues that when costs such as teacher pensions, debt payments, and...

This video presents a weekly address from President Obama. In the course of his address, Obama highlights his commitment to education and his determination to defy Republican attempts to cut education spending.

Primary Document

This document provides a variety of information concerning federal education funding. Education secretary Margaret Spellings explains how education funding is established under the Constitution, how federal education spending has risen through the years, and how...

In his first address to Congress, President Bush called education his "top priority." The President stated that "[t]he highest percentage increase in our budget should go to our children's education," and because of that, the President urged Congress to increase...

Among other goals in this State of the Union address, President Clinton outlined an "Education Accountability Act" which linked school performance to federal financial help. In the course of his address, the President promised to spend millions of dollars "to help...

"An Act To strengthen and improve educational quality and educational opportunities [H. R. 2362] in the Nation's elementary and secondary schools."

These budget tables break down the federal spending levels for the President's education budget. The grand total chart at the end of the document is especially interesting as it gives spending allotments for both the normal budget and the extra...

This speech describes the many spending cuts that New Jersey's governor intended to make in his first year in office. Christie stated that "[t]he biggest category of reductions" in his budget would "likely be the most controversial," as it...

As many researchers have noted, a large portion of public school spending increases in recent years are directly attributable to the growth of the special education industry. The special education industry blossomed...

No Child Left Behind is a descendant of "The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965." Its opening lines describe it as "An Act [t]o close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind."

"The U.S. Census Bureau conducts the Census of Governments and the Annual Surveys of State and Local Government Finances as authorized by law under Title 13, U.S. Code, Sections 161 and 182. ...

This report contains financial statistics relating to public elementary-secondary education. It includes national and state financial aggregates and displays data for the largest 100 school...

Released in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Education, this report provides a variety of data on U.S. education budgets and per student spending for fiscal year 2011.

Among other items in this state of the state address, California's governor declared that Californians "must invest in education." The governor's idea of investing in education includes encouraging school reforms and spending money on building and renovating schools. Schwarzenegger...

In this transcript, President Obama affirms the need to strengthen America's education system in the years to come. The President chides Republicans for their idea to "cut education by 20...

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