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100 ?’s for Government: Where’s my education?

January 26, 2013

This is Question 56 from “100 Questions for Government” series

When we consider our education system as a problem, it came as a surprise to me that the fundamental problem seems to be a failure of math. The statistics for the United States are compelling:

a)    The US was 4th in the OECD for elementary and secondary school spending in dollars in 2008[1] (5th
as a percentage of GDP)
b)   The US was 1st in the OECD for post secondary education spending in dollars in 2008[2] (11th as a
percentage of GDP)
       c)   The US was ranked 14th for reading, 25th for math and 17th for science in the OECD in 2010[3]

I believe education is one of the fundamental rights we should provide to our nation’s children. Also, if we’re going to do it, we should do it right. Whenever I see significant cuts to education budgets, my immediate reaction is to ask “why would we do that to our children?”. However, given the statistics above, it seems apparent there’s more than just a spending issue at work here. If our spending is in the top five, or top ten for that matter, but our results don’t reflect this, our spending must be on the “wrong stuff” or unevenly distributed.

It’s not that hard to find statistics on education spending by state[4] that show significant variances in per capita spending (e.g. Alaska at $4,649 and Nevada at $2,026). Similarly, per pupil spending can vary significantly between states[5] (e.g. New York at $15,981 and Utah at $5,683). Given that over two-thirds of education spending is sourced at a local level[6], probably from local property taxes, the chances of getting a good education in a neighborhood with low property values seems to diminish proportionately.

I’m certain there are factors which influence the variance in spending between states like real estate and wage costs. However, there’s a decent probability that our richest neighborhoods are providing their students with a world-best education and our poorest are falling short. If we feel your place of residence within the United States should significantly influence the quality of your education, the system is probably running quite smoothly. If we feel every American child should receive a standard of education that allows them to compete with the best of the international students, there’s a decent chance we’re:

  1. Falling short
  2. Failing some students more than others

If we believe in the free market’s role in providing all of our citizens with an opportunity to better themselves through hard work, it seems inordinately unfair to handicap vast swathes of our emerging adults before they even reach the marketplace.

It is important to note that a large proportion of the regional disparity is driven by education spending being driven by states and counties – the Federal government may be able influence education spending but it cannot control it. Also, it is possible that with the US population being over three hundred million, and the higher ranked countries having much smaller populations, that the lack of central control is a factor in diminishing US student’s results.

Initial Opinion:

The current US education system does not provide consistent “bang for the buck”. It produces some of the greatest entrepreneurial and scientific minds on the planet but also underperforms for large sections of the US student community primarily based on the wealth of their surrounding neighborhoods.

With education spending representing only 4.03%[7] of Federal spending, the fight for better standards can be influenced at the National level but the real decisions are made at a State and local level. Possible solutions come from fairer allocation of resources, improving efficiency and a commitment by all levels of government to protect our children’s right to a world-class pre-tertiary education.


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