Double for nothing

Choice will enable better schools for fewer dollars, argues Marcus Winters in City Journal. “Schools don’t need more funds; they need the freedom to use their funds as they see best.”

 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.

Here’s his chart:
Graph by Alberto Mena

About Joanne


  1. As with all these per-pupil measurements, I’d like to see a breakdown of how much money goes to the typical student. With so many people hired to help deal with students with special needs as well as the introduction of arguably unnecessary classroom technologies, I’d argue that the actual money spent on an actual student is really much lower.

    It’s like the teacher-to-student ratios we see so often. When a school district’s ratio is 1:15 but the average class size is 25, you can see that some of those teachers are not actually in the regular classroom

    I’m not arguing that this money is wasted. I’m simply saying that the comparisons aren’t so simple. You have to weed out how the money is spent before you can make a per-pupil calculation, because some of that money is not going to the average student. Services for students with special needs simply didn’t exist in the 1970s, at least not in a widespread manner.

    All that said, I’d love to see local districts get more say in how their money is spent so long as instructional quality is maintained. The devil in those details is enough to drive one a little batty, however.

    • I agree with Patti. I bet a detailed investigation would reveal two things:

      A) At least half of the increased spending is devoted solely to administration of one type or another.

      b) Most of the rest of the spending is being spent on federal mandates and programs that didn’t exist before education was federalized.

    • As mom of a special ed student, I definitely agree that a huge portion of the increased spending is going towards educating children like mine. I went to a district special ed meeting last week and learned that the number of children with an autism diagnosis has tripled in the past decade. There are 82 new children with autism since the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year alone (including my daughter when she aged out of Early Intervention). These children are extraordinarily expensive to educate because they require a very low teacher:student ratio (my daughter’s preschool has 1:2) and so many associated services like speech therapy, OT, ABA, social skills training, transportation to a school other than the neighborhood one, etc.

      Instead of spending huge sums year after year on special ed and other government programs for the disabled like the Regional Centers, SSI disability, Medicaid, etc. we should be trying to find out what is causing the autism epidemic and how to cure it. Maybe it’s too late for the current generation of kids with autism, but in the long-run it’s far more cost-effective to prevent it in the first place.

      • There is no “autism epidemic”. “

        In 1975, only 1 in 5 handicapped students was receiving an education.. In some states, children with certain disabilities (blind, deaf, mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed) were actually forbidden to attend public schools. Yes, disabled children are more expensive to educate, but no one wants to go back to the bad old days.

        • “There is no “autism epidemic”.

          B.S. The autism epidemic is very real and it isn’t just a matter of a change in the diagnostic criteria. The article you linked to was from 2005, and while the diagnostic criteria hasn’t changed in the 7 years since publication, the number of kids with autism has shot up 78%.

          I can see it just in my own social circle. In 2005 when my oldest child was 3, we knew exactly one child with autism. Today, we have one of our own, and know several other families (EXCLUDING the ones we know through the EI preschool and other autism-specific support groups) who have an autistic child.

          How many children have to suffer before we stop denying the reality of the autism epidemic and start figuring out what the cause(s) are?

      • The definition of autism has changed very significantly, perhaps even drastically, over the past 40 years. I remember visiting (about 1970) the state facility for the cognitively impaired, and many of the patients exhibited classic autism symptoms but they were simply classed as “retarded”. I also remember kids who would know be placed at the opposite end of the spectrum, as Asperger’s, but were then simply accepted as different. Of course, the typical curriculum and instruction of that era were significantly more friendly to those on the autism spectrum and to boys in general; no groupwork, no journaling, no talking about feelings, no art component to academic work etc.

  2. Pfft, that’s nothing, if you go back to the early 1960’s, educational achievement has actually falling, though we spend almost 3.5 times as much today as we did back then.

    I guess the difference is that back then, students who didn’t want to be in school, or who were habitual screwups in the classroom simply weren’t put up with in a school environment.

    Discipline is everything, i’d imagine.

  3. Did he adjust for demographic changes in the population of students being tested?

    Of course not.

    Dropout rates are far lower. Minorities, the poor and english language learners stay in school far longer than ever before. Each of those groups scores have gone up significantly, as have scores of middle and upper class whites.

    Disaggregate the scores and you see a VERY different picture than the one your paint. You see that the students who are the most challenging for our schools are staying longer AND doing better when they get tested (doubly hard, that).

    Or, you know, you could take the simpleton’s view: no improvement for a lot more money.

    • Sorry, I just don’t see it.

      Could you, perhaps, provide some support for that “everything’s getting better for the various demographic groups but the aggregate doesn’t reflect that” notion?