2004 July 05 Monday
American Public Underestimate Amount Spent On Public Schools

More is spent per pupil in American schools than the general public believes.

Most people have no idea how much money public schools spend per child. Almost half of those surveyed (48 percent) estimated that public schools spend less than $5,000 per pupil. Nearly 3 in 10 Americans think that public schools spend between $5,000 and $10,000; only 14 percent believe that schools spend over $10,000 per student.

Not even close to the mark. The U.S. Department of Education says total spending was actually $9,354 per student in 2001-02. Given the pace of increases in previous years, this year's per-pupil spending undoubtedly approached if not exceeded $10,000.

So: Almost 86 percent of the public underestimates how much money public schools get. And the average American is off by a factor of two.

It is a little known fact spending on schools has been going up faster than inflation for decades and that the result has not been any measurable improvement in outcomes. Yet teachers unions are convincing a gullible and uninformed public that the schools are starved for dollars.

For example, check out per pupil spending trends in New York City, Texas, and California (40% per pupil inflation adjusted increase from 1980 to 1999). Yet the continued cry is for more money. The problem is not a lack of money. One problem is the teachers unions. Another problem is the multiple levels of bureaucracy which includes a rapid growth in federal spending which is following on the heels of a shift of spending and disbursement and control up to the state level. Yet another is an increase in the number of lousy students due to immigration trends. But we have to keep hearing the lie that the problem is a lack of money and we have to keep spending more money that is not going to help any.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 July 05 04:49 PM  Education

John S Bolton said at July 5, 2004 8:48 PM:

If the problem is runaway costs and low performance of students, anti-quality immigration explains this destructive combination. We could have declining costs and rising performance, just by restriction of immigration. An anti-immigrationist policy which included the removal of the children of illegal aliens from our public schools, would swiftly accomplish the above. The fact that hardly any officials would want to carry out such a policy, shows that their intent is to damage our society by treacherous giveaways to the foreigner. There is one reliable means of increasing power; it is by creating irreconcilable conflicts in the population. Officials could require all immigrants to be highly literate in English, but that would thwart their desire to inflict damage and division on the country. The diversity-value doctrine is also contradicted by the negative results on the schools and the taxpayers arising from immigrant diversity.

gcochran said at July 5, 2004 9:48 PM:

Performance has been stable, on a national basis. Immigration is a second-order effect on costs - the biggest effects are teacher salaries increasing more rapidly than inflation over this time period and a greatly increased fraction of non-teachers in secondary schools - administrators and other bloviators.

Randall Parker said at July 5, 2004 10:11 PM:


What is your measure of stable performance? A recent report claims that real high school dropout rates are higher than the officially reported rates.

gcochran said at July 5, 2004 11:29 PM:

Look at the NAEP results. Nothing has changed much since 1970. As for the real dropout rates: right, if you don't include GEDs (and probably you should not) they are lower than claimed. But that means that they haven't changed that much over the last 30 years - reasonably stable, like I said. It is hard to make any differecne in educational results, good or bad.

Curious Citizen from Sweden said at July 6, 2004 12:52 PM:

A major problem in schools according to both my aunt (who is a teacher for 10 to 13 year olds) and friends working in the child psychiatry sector is that children dont sleep enough hours.

Some kids have real medical problems that interfere with their sleep. Other kids have TVs...

Another serious problem in Sweden is that students who are studying to become teachers have a lot less general academic skills and have lower intelligence than other students. They also work far less hours during their education than other students do.

If you are a parent or are planning to become one, I strongly suggest that you visit a school. Follow the students during a day. It can be, ... enlightening.

My worldview took a sharp turn towards conservatism during a year in school as a personal assistant and half a year studying pedagogy. A lot of parents are parents in name only. Far too many are lazy, stupid and mean spirited. Grown ups are however, a lot more grown up than kids.

This may sound self evident but a lot of adults dont get it. In a lot of teachers this is caused by their formal training. The institution of pedagogy at Lund University shocked me. The level of scientific rigor was abysmal compared with other institutions I haved studied with. The worldview was a very pronounced "anti-"authoritarian" constructivist one.

I recomend reading articles by E. D. Hirsch if you are interested in school issues.

See http://www.coreknowledge.org/CKproto2/about/artcls.htm

John S Bolton said at July 6, 2004 10:19 PM:

If the very lowest standards are used; illiteracy could be doubling every decade or so. Searching "literacy from 1870 to 1979: illiteracy" one finds less than 1% illiteracy for the 70's in the U.S..'92 shows 2% illiteracy, as in the "national adult literacy survey: low literate" results. This year, the "national assessment of adult literacy" is to report its results, which may be compared with those of '92. Anti-literacy immigration policies are causing minimum standards to crash. Total illiteracy is rising rapidly; and the level of functional literacy is in a secular decline for the first time since the dark ages, perhaps. The disadvantaged minorities are more than twice as likely to be in the functionally illiterate category, as the majority; mass immigration causes this disabled proportion to rise steadily. The pro-diversity may say what do you expect; but it is still being said that such diversity enhances, or does not damage, our minimum standards. Functional illiteracy, as in the reports above, means fifth grade reading levels or below, and encompasses a quarter of the population.

Rob Sperry said at July 6, 2004 11:43 PM:

I would suggest the cause of the school problem is the model of learning it is based on, and the lack of any scientific foundation for that model. Further none of the school practices or materials are created by an engineering process (see the surly your joking doctor Feynman.) To the extent that any of schools work it is just that they are not failing so bad because they have a better distribution of students to start with.

Consider the following:

A child upon thinking about an idea runs up and asks a question in an excited voice. Is your response:

A) Smile, and answer the question
B) Look in a pondering manner, and play Socrates
C) Tell him to go back to his seat and please raise his hand if he has a question, and further note that the question is not on the topic of todays lecture.

Do children learn by:
A) Reading, doing math problems and writing
B) Experimenting with the world around them and talking to people
C)Sitting bored in a chair, looking forward, not talking to the people next to them, listening to someone speak on a subject not of their choosing that does not relate to any internally motivated goal

Rob Sperry

Randall Parker said at July 7, 2004 12:31 AM:


Can we trust NAEP numbers across decades as a reliable way to compare? Are 1970 and 1980 tests ever given to students of today to normalize across years? I have no idea. I wonder.


I think a number of things are wrong with education. One of my favorites has to do with class size. See Virginia Postrel's column about how the real problem that small class size tends to help with is disruptive students. Imagine one kid in 30 is very disruptive. Take average class size down from 30 to 15 and then half the kids are no longer in a class with a disruptive kid who steals time away from lessons by his disruptions. But what is a better solution? Separate the disruptive kids from the rest of the kids. It is a lot cheaper. It works way better.

Also, I agree with Tyler Cowen that reducing class size probably lowers average teacher quality. Note the suggestions made in Tyler's post for improving education.

As for the lack of scientific approach to education: Teachers are less intelligent than the average college student. Education departments are notable for their lower standards of rigor - even compared to other social sciences.

Yes, I read Feynman. I think we need great scientists to write grade school science and math textbooks. We also need to have all college science and math and engineering classes recorded on DVD to allow bright grade school and high school students to watch far higher quality lecturers on much more advanced material. I think the bright kids would learn a great deal from such material.

We also need computer software that will allow grade school and high school kids to be tested on the advanced subjects they'd get to learn about from college lectures.

Fly said at July 7, 2004 9:56 AM:

It may be too late to reform public education. Too many problems. Teachers Union, school administration, too little focus on education, too much social engineering, too many disruptive students, too much politics. A system bogged down by bureaucracy and tradition.

I have more hope of a solution coming from outside the education field.

Home schooling. More and more information is available on line. More courses and more tests. More learning programs. The Internet supports home schooling communities.

The US Military is the biggest educator in the US. It has the funds, talent, and the need to advance education.

US companies must continually train their employees. Companies will both be a market for and a supplier of education.

People want to learn. There is a large market for products that promote learning.

The research community is very interested in the brain and how humans learn. With better knowledge the technology of learning could advance quickly in the coming decades.

Bob Macron said at July 7, 2004 10:09 AM:

This is all a big scam. Teachers' Unions want the welfare handout. Many KNOW these kids in inner cities will NEVER be able to learn but hey, the unions just keep making more dough.
First, a MASSIVE immigration crackdown would help our schools tremendously. Too many illegals have kids and send those kids to public schools. Often, wasted money in the name of racial busing and bi-lingual education simply adds to the wasted money. Such kids are already behind and only cause further delay in a system's progress.
Also, many of the black kids in particular are in bad shape. NO AMOUNT of money will change them. Only extremely strict rules will. If not, they MUST be thrown out.
Money has been poured into minority schools only to see them get worse. The problem is with the KIDS and not some bureaucracy. These kids often come from hell-holes and wear doo-rags and look like criminals. White kids, thanks to the horrors of racial busing, have basically left city schools. Their percentages in city schools are pathetically low.
In summary, I would crack down on illegal aliens. Also, the end of racial busing and bi-lingual programs must occur. The tossing out of bad kids must occur.
Do I have hope for this? NO WAY. IN cities, most white administrators are COWARDS who will buckle to any black-led complaint or boycott. The hip-hop "culture" has invaded and many of the schools look like that of an Al-Qeada truck bombing. Administrators, politicians and organizations simply do not have the stomach or guts to take this on. In the end, the increased exodus to the suburbs or private schools will continue and the teachers' unions will rake in more dough as apathetic people and cowards will allow it.

John S Bolton said at July 8, 2004 2:37 AM:

Estimating costs from the census'"facts for features" 'back to school' from '01, public schools k-12 spent 410 billion. Currently, this cost must be up at least 5%, to 430 billion or more. Total enrollment is above 54 million (53.4 million in '01), subtracting the census' figure of 10% private, yields 49 million or more in public schools, 12th grade and below. Dividing 430 billion by 49 million gives $8,775 per student a year currently, at a minimum. It could be higher since the students would be more numerous than estimated here, and the inflation of school expenses would be higher than assumed. I ask that, if any cause of overestimation has been introduced, someone please identify it.

Rob Sperry said at July 9, 2004 10:49 PM:

Thanks for the reply Randal,

Interestingly for a student teacher ratio of one/one (homeschooling) the students tend to out perform schooled children even if their parents are minorities with no college education. Through there is an obvious gumption bias.

I think the lack of a scientific approach to education has more to do with institutional bias than the groups intelligence. What is the R&D budget as a percent of educational dollars? Also while the mean may be low, there are certainly enough intelligent people that one would expect some progress.

For me the point of Feynman's story was not that stupid people make text books, but that the process for choosing the books is such a disaster. They do not do empirical evaluations to try and determine if students learn from one book more than another. Its like they judge the quality of a car, by listening to its radio and reading the maintenance manual. There is nothing like an FDA for educational materials and processes.

The good news is that high end lecturers are starting to show up on the web. I have been going through a linear algebra video lecture series from MIT.

Randall Parker said at July 9, 2004 11:37 PM:


But why is the process of choosing math books such a disaster? Because the choosers are so untalented. Imagine if Ph.D. physicists were making the math text book purchasing choices. Lousy texts couldn't be sold.

The big professional societies (e.g. American Chemical Society, National Academy of Sciences, etc) ought to appoint committees to make recommended lists of grade school and high school texts with ratings for each text. If all texts deserved only 1 or 0 stars then they should report that. If some old texts that are no longer in press are better they could review and report higher numbers of stars for those old texts and that might lead to the reprinting of those old texts.

Maxwell Rubesch said at September 2, 2005 4:05 PM:

Interestin point Mr. Sperry, although home schooled children out preform thier piers but a downside to the home schooling is that they lack valuable social skills that they are not likely to gain elsewhere

Michelle Bush said at December 6, 2008 3:32 AM:

Actually, this blog does more to explain why our school system is failing than anything I've ever seen. I am so glad that I don't have children in the school system. There are more grammatical and spelling errors in this blog than I care to specifically address. If educators would step up their games, maybe students would follow.

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