Public School Spending: More Isn’t Necessarily Better

Vicki Alger | June 5, 2019

Public School Spending: More Isn’t Necessarily Better

Public school per-pupil spending has increased for the fifth consecutive year, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The county’s top-five spenders for 2017 are New York ($23,091), the District of Columbia ($21,974), Connecticut ($19,322), New Jersey ($18,920) and Vermont ($18,290). California comes in at number 21, spending $12,143 per pupil (see Summary Table 11, available here).

Total nationwide spending for public K-12 education in 2017 was $694 billion, up from $671 billion in 2016. This change represents a 3.4 percent increase. In comparison, inflation increased by 2.1 percent, and student enrollment increased by just one-tenth of 1 percent (based on Summary Table 19, available here).

When it comes to providing quality education, money matters. But simply spending more doesn’t necessarily mean better quality education—particularly if local school boards don’t prioritize instructional spending.

Despite increased education spending that outpaces both inflation and student-enrollment increases, only about half (53 percent) of all education spending is for instruction, which includes teacher salaries and benefits (based on Summary Tables 1 and 6, available here).

Putting parents in charge of their children’s education dollars would be a more fiscally responsible way to fund American education. Parents know that great teachers matter most to their children’s education, and given the choice, they would choose educational providers that prioritize investing in top-quality teachers. To attract students and their associated funding, education providers would need to attract and retain great teachers, or risk losing students to other providers.

Programs such as education savings accounts, or ESAs, put parents in charge by giving them a type of dedicated-used debit card to purchase approved education services and supplies, such as private-school tuition, online courses, special-education therapies, tutoring, and school supplies. Parents can also use leftover funds for future education expenses, including college tuition.

Done right, ESAs would also be a boon for teachers.

At current spending levels, even excluding spending for capital outlays and debt payments, there is enough funding to provide every public-school student an ESA worth $12,550. Imagine what it would be like if, under an ESA-financing system, parent-chosen education providers directed 80 percent of funding to instruction, instead of just over 50 percent as public school districts do now. The average base salary for America’s 3.6 million teachers would be more than $134,000—nearly two-and-a-half times greater than their current average salary of just over $51,000.

This scenario is a win-win for students and their teachers.

As the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once said, “Education spending will be most effective, if it relies on parental choice and private initiative—the building blocks of success throughout our society.”

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This article was republished with permission from the Independent Institute.

[Image Credit: Flickr-Lucelia Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 2.0]