Same Con, Different Spin

This chart provides a reminder from the American Enterprise Institute that inflation-adjusted spending per student of K-12 public schools across the country has increased almost two-and-a-half times as rapidly over the past 50 years as the number of students. The education system is paying for more teachers and a whole lot more non-teaching staff. (Click here to see a “bar chart race” visualization over time.)  But it never seems to be enough.

I suspect that most taxpayers would agree to pay more in taxes and give educators what they say they need if they knew that more money would actually lead to better educational outcomes. But educational achievement has stagnated for the last couple of decades at least. It is tempting to conclude that cries of more money for “social justice” is just the latest con game to redistribute wealth — in the name of minorities and the poor — from taxpayers to a floundering educational system.

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20 responses to “Same Con, Different Spin”

  1. UpAgnstTheWall Avatar

    I wonder if there have been any massive technological shifts since 1970 that would necessitate public schools plunking down an increase amount of money for specialized, professional staff to deal with said changes.

    1. I wonder, if there had been such massive technological shifts, whether they had any measurable impact on educational achievement. And if they didn’t, I wonder why the money was spent.

      1. UpAgnstTheWall Avatar

        Those are good questions! You should have included them instead of just going straight to fear mongering about social justice wealth redistribution!

        Because should our school systems have been a part of the Interneting of Things is something that bears scrutiny. Was it worth it to replace old card catalogs with computers? Was wiring up schools to replace mimeogrpahs with wireless copier/printers a smart choice? Could schools have functioned just fine being technologically backwards compared to other workplaces? Were these updates necessary or were they the aesthetic preferences of the professionals employed to teach our children?

        Are there things we pay the cost of that don’t move the needle in test scores but still needed doing? If there is a rapidly declining return on investment to spending money IN schools does that point to places OUT of schools the money would be better spent?

  2. sbostian Avatar

    I suspect that you would find similar trends in higher education as well. Benchmarking over the past 20 years might be more appropriate since there was a big push to jam more students into colleges from the 1970’s to 1990’s that caused student count to balloon. Student growth reached more normal levels by around 2000. Growth in non teaching staff has literally exploded over the past 20 years.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    and oldie but goodie:

    Dave Brat
    stated on February 16, 2015 in a Facebook post.:
    “…Over 30 years, federal spending on education has grown by 375 percent, but test scores remain flat.”

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Actually reading competency and achievement has fallen drastically over past 50 years.

    See E. D. Hirsch’s book Why Knowledge Matters published by Harvard Educational Press in 2016.

    Here are some reviews of that book.

    Why Knowledge Matters addresses critical issues in contemporary education reform and shows how cherished truisms about education and child development have led to unintended and negative consequences. Drawing on recent findings in neuroscience and data from France, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., provides new evidence for the argument that a carefully planned, knowledge-based elementary curriculum is essential to providing the foundations for children’s life success and ensuring equal opportunity for students of all backgrounds.

    “Knowledge matters! Anyone who has struggled to read an article stuffed with technical or legal jargon, or with arcane references to obscure places and events, has had a taste of what it’s like to be a child who has been deprived of the cultural touchstones that literate adults take for granted. Hirsch is performing a brave and invaluable service by reminding us that proficient reading depends not just on skilled eyes and ears but on an educated mind.”
    –Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, author of The Language Instinct and The Sense of Style

    “Hirsch has done it again. He has produced the most clear and well-grounded argument for why a knowledge-centric education is critical for enhancing educational equity. He pulls no punches. Why Knowledge Matters provides thoughtful solutions to important education issues.”
    –Susan B. Neuman, professor and chair, Teaching and Learning Department, Steinhardt School, New York University

    “If you are frustrated and angry about the over-testing of students, the narrowing of the curriculum, the scapegoating of teachers, and the persistence of the achievement gap, you must read this brilliant book. Hirsch persuasively explains how all these phenomena are related, and points the way forward to a better education for all.”
    –Daniel T. Willingham, professor, University of Virginia

    E. D. Hirsch, Jr. is the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

  5. djrippert Avatar

    Another indictment of big government and BigEd. It would be interesting to see the same statistics from countries that have surpassed us over the years in educational results.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    It would take more than something from AEI or Carpe Diem to convince me of much.

    This is pretty much what they do – this is their mission and it’s pretty much to argue that public education is a failure and that non-public schools should replace them – though it’s not clear if they think everyone should continue to pay taxes to fund them.

    Most non-public schools actually cost MORE than public schools.

    If one looks at what a median income family actually pays in taxes towards public schools – it comes no where near what it actually costs so it’s hard to tell if Conservatives are arguing for “income redistribution” to fund said schools.

    And of course, AEI and company never get this far in their advocacy – it’s basically stunted to “take the tax money from public schools and give it to private schools”….

    1. “Most non-public schools actually cost MORE than public schools.”

      I don’t believe that is right. If you compare federal data with private school data, something like 34 states have higher per capita expenditures per student on public school students than on private school students for elementary and secondary schooling.

      “It would take more than something from AEI or Carpe Diem to convince me of much.”

      The data AEI is using is all from the Department of Education.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        The average private school tuition in Virginia is approximately $14,340 per year (2020).The private elementary school average is $10,738 per year and the private high school average is $17,574 per year.

        ” The data AEI is using is all from the Department of Education.”

        so where is the page reference? What I have found with AEI and related is that they do not reference the actual data and page…because what they’ve done created a chart from that data – that chart is not DOE, it’s Carpe Diem and Mr. Perry.

        And it’s misleading – In 1970, the average price of a car was $3542. Now the average price is about 25K, 6 times what it cost then.

        Do we assume education also is the same as it was in 1970? In 1970 – some schools were still segregated. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, was created in 1990.

        AEI and Carpe Diem look at things in a narrow context… and their goal is to show how bad it is … they’re not exactly objective folks.

        1. Larry, if you look at the private school review website you cite, you will see that 34 states have higher per capita public school expenditures than private school expenditures. Country-wide, public school per capita expenditures are also higher.

          Regarding AEI, you are right that they should have done a better job in citing the Department of Education reports. Education published their data on the NCES website. You can see that there is an abundance of data there.

          Do you disagree with the gist of the report? If you compare the U.S. to other OECD countries, the U.S. spends about 35% more than average on primary and secondary education. Academic performance is typically lower middle of the pack.

          1. sbostian Avatar

            It would be interesting to see the difference (if any) between public and private K-12 schools in the percentage allocation between instructional staff and non instructional staff. I could be wrong, but it seems likely that the non instructional “overhead” is a much larger percentage of expenditures than is the case for private schools.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            Izzo – can you give me the link you’re looking at – most of the stuff on what I provided is Virginia.

            and no.. AEI and Carpe Diem have a practice of quoting data and not providing reference to the specific data they cite… it’s what they do.

            in terms of the gist of it. No.

            We are educating more kids from lower economic circumstances than before – that used to be segregated and we are also now educating kids with special needs, and autism that likely few private schools would want or would want nor would they meet the standards the public schools have to.

            Special need kids and autistic kids cost 20K up and public schools were not required to educate them prior to 1990.

            Public schools must provide transportation that private schools often do not.

            I also provided a chart showing a substantial increase in the folks who have received high school diplomas…

            What they are correct in – is narrow, our overall attainment – which has been stagnant for 20 years but we still score higher than a number of other countries like Italy and Spain and France.

            Not China, Germany, Singapore, etc.

            Now if we had a true apple to apple comparison of private schools verses public schools and those private schools also had to educate special needs and adult GED programs, ESL, sports, music, dual-enrollment, etc… then maybe we’d have a more honest comparison.

            But right now, most private schools only serve a narrow segment that public schools serve.

          3. LarrytheG Avatar

            One more time – I have no problem what-so-ever with tax dollars for non-public school as long as they have to meet the same standards for open enrollment and academic performance – transparency and accountability.

            what is not going to happen is that we abandon public education and go to private schools without any accountability.

            And if I heard such words from AEI that they would support open enrollment for all – and transparency and accountability for academic performance – then I would deem them credible.

            But all they got right now is clever ways to represent data that is misleading and designed to paint public schools as failing.

            The irony here is in the middle of the pandemic when everbody and their brother are bitchin and complaining about public schools not opening – the same ones that apparently are “failing”?

            If true -and especially among Conservatives – why not leave the public schools and go private? Now is the time, no?

            Is there a big exodus? Nope. Why?

            Instead, we get the same old same old from AEI about public school failure – not that people are leaving them in droves because they are failures… nope… why not?

  7. Nancy_Naive Avatar

    Well, then I suppose we’ll just have to wait, as did our ancestors, for the chance meetings of the right pairs of 32 that will produce the Golden One who will rise to the task of dragging some of us into the 21st century while the rest relive the events of 1861… again and again.

  8. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead V

    I love the bar chart race. Reminds me of a good horse race. Cost Per Real Pupil wins! Non teaching staff are big drivers in this. Good intentions built into the non teaching staff full time positions. From administration, to athletics, and on down to special education. A huge sum of salary dollars tied up here. Tragically the investments have not significantly changed learning outcomes. Don’t forge the Standards of Quality determines a great deal of the non teaching staff burden that school boards must bear. SOQs are written, retracted, and revised in Richmond by the General Assembly year after year.

  9. Matt Hurt Avatar
    Matt Hurt

    There is no doubt that federal educational laws have added mandates and money to the process, and this can be attributed to at least a significant portion of the increase in cost since 1970. The Title programs have contributed significantly to the overall cost of education. However, they seem to have had little benefit on outcomes.

    These laws had good intentions, but it seems that those intentions have not translated well to the classroom. The problem with this is that when the politicians’ staffers in DC tell them to vote for an educational bill, they have a certain idea of what that bill is intended to do. Then the United States Department of Education (formed in 1979) is required to interpret the law into regulations. These unelected bureaucrats at USED use their own bias to bend the regulations to what they deem appropriate. From there, the same process occurs at the state and then the local school divisions levels. Therefore, the initial intention of the law is usually mangled beyond recognition when it gets to the classroom level.

    If anyone has had experience with federal educational money, you’ll realize that your hands are pretty well tied in how you get to spend it. There have been a few examples of mismanagement of federal funds over the years, and the overreaction to that mismanagement had created many onerous regulations. Similarly, many positions have been created at the federal, state, and local levels to simply comply with all of the compliance, and those positions play no part whatsoever with regards student outcomes.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Prior to 1990 – schools did not have to educate special needs kids – including kids with autism. It costs 20-30k for each kid from what I understand.

      We also got more kids who did not have English as a first language.

      We also have a lot more “extras” programs for the College-bound – as well as GED folks. We do sports now – big time – even in Middle schools – coaches beyond just physical ed classes… stadiums, running tracks, basketball courts… and maintenance people for all the facilities.

      We provide not only free and reduced lunches, we provide breakfast now.

      Finally – how much did a teacher make in 1970? take a look:

      Now how much do they make now? entry level about 40K

      try this: ” The U.S. dollar experienced an average inflation rate of 3.86% per year during this period, causing the real value of a dollar to decrease. In other words, $1 in 1970 is equivalent in purchasing power to about $6.64 in 2020,

      The one thing that is true is that we are pretty much stagnant on scores for reading, math and science and 10 – 20 in the world rankings.

      This is not because of the disadvantaged kids – it’s reflected of our top kids – our top kids are outscored by top kids in other countries. Only 1/3 of our kids score as “proficient” in reading… that’s terrible… and it’s that way even in “good” schools – mostly white schools also.

  10. Top-GUN Avatar

    GOVERNMENT Schools do a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with education,, ie,,, free food for all the children of irresponsible parents, so bad that we actually provide back packs full of food for weekends.
    Then their is the IDEA law foisted on us by the federal government, it was supposed to be a funded mandate,, the money never showed up,,,
    We won’t even begin to talk about the lowering of standards and the ever changing teaching methods…
    Does anyone remember “Phonics”. Or that 2+2 really does =4 no matter how you feel about it.
    GOVERNMENT Schools, a very expensive day care system where some children accidently do learn something occasionally…

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