Many people have alleged that the mediocre scholastic performance of K-12 students in the United States is due to inadequate funding for public schools. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for one, urges higher levels of “investment” in education at every level. Congressional Progressive Caucus member Maxine Waters laments that “educational systems ... are failing” because “we don't really invest” in them. Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman suggests that increased spending on education today would relieve society of the much greater burden of having to pay the costs associated with incarcerating uneducated prisoners later on. President Barack Obama has demanded that an ever-growing education budget serve as the centerpiece of a “national mission,” lest we “put our kids, our workers, and our country at a competitive disadvantage for decades.” In a similar vein, the highly influential Center for American Progress calls for “continued investment in education in order to grow our economy and rebuild the middle class.” And the Economic Policy Institute has derided policymakers at federal, state, and local levels “for not devoting more resources to education.” Notably, this rhetoric has filtered its way into the public mind. Polling data indicate that American adults commonly list insufficient funding as a major problem facing the public schools in their communities.
These peceptions, however, are not grounded in reality. Over the past half-century, per-pupil spending on public elementary- and secondary-school students nationwide has grown (in constant present-day dollars) from $2,808 in the 1961-62 school year, to $4,552 in 1970-71, to $5,718 in 1980-81, to $7,857 in 1990-91, to $12,550 today—a figure exceeding that of every other nation on Earth except Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, and Norway.
Notwithstanding these rapidly rising expenditures, the performance of public-school students across the U.S. has not improved in the least. Consider that in 1973, 17-year-old high-schoolers scored an average of 304 on the math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—a massive, federally mandated initiative that seeks to quantify the academic competence of fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade students. In 2008, the corresponding average math score for 17-year-olds was virtually unchanged, at 306. During the same 35-year time span, the average NAEP reading score for students in that same age group moved only a single point, from 285 to 286. As syndicated columnist Deroy Murdock wrote in August 2013: “For all the lavish expenditures that have been lobbed into America’s government schools, U.S. student performance is in its fifth decade of suspended animation.”
A 2011 report by the Center on Education Policy found that fully 48% of America's public schools had not met federal achievement standards during the preceding year. Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) reading scores for the high-school class of 2011 were the lowest on record; the combined reading and math scores of that same class declined to their lowest point since 1995.
According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)—an evaluation of 15-year-old students in 34 countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—the U.S. today ranks 25th in math literacy, 17th in scientific literacy, and 14th in reading proficiency. Of the 34 OECD countries, only 8 have a lower high-school graduation rate than the United States.
In a 2006 survey, 72% of U.S. employers rated high-school graduates—regardless of race or ethnicity—as deficient in basic writing skills, and 54% rated them as deficient in mathematical abilities. ACT, the national organization that administers college admissions tests, reports that fully 76% of all U.S. high-school graduates are “not adequately prepared academically for first-year college courses.”
Black and Hispanic students have been particularly shortchanged by the public-education system’s inadequacies. In public high schools nationwide, 45% of black students and 43% of Hispanics (as compared to 22% of whites) drop out before their classes graduate. And even many of those who do manage to get their diplomas are scarcely prepared for the challenges of higher education or the business world. Of all graduates in the class of 2011, only 11% of blacks and 15% of Hispanics were proficient in math, while just 13% of blacks and 4% of Hispanics were proficient in reading. The corresponding figures for whites were 42% in math and 40% in reading. If black and Hispanic students in the U.S. were counted as self-contained “national” groups, their average PISA reading scores would rank them 31st and 33rd, respectively, among the 34 OECD nations.
In 2008, the NAEP reading scores of black boys in eighth grade were just slightly higher than the scores of white girls in fourth grade. On the National Education Longitudinal Survey—which monitors the progress of eighth-grade students as they move through high school, college, and eventually the workforce—fully 54% of 16-year-old black males scored below the 20th percentile on achievement tests in reading, social studies, mathematics and science, as compared with 24% of white males and 42% of Hispanic males. By age 17, the average black student performs academically at a level comparable to the 20th percentile of the white distribution.
Progressives commonly ascribe these unpleasant facts to inadequate funding for public schools in nonwhite neighborhoods. Former Columbia University professor of education Linda Darling-Hammond, for instance, has stated that “the resources devoted to the education of poor children and children of color in the U.S. continue to be significantly less than those devoted to other American children … and it is these inequalities that create and sustain the ‘bell curve’ of differential achievement.” The NAACP’s official statement on education policy similarly asserts that “quality public education for African American and Latino students is persistently threatened as a direct result of inequitable school funding.” And College Board President Gaston Caperton once declared, “Tests are not the problem…. The problem we have is an unfair education system in America—an unequal education system.”
But these claims are demonstrably untrue. The per-pupil spending on the education of white public-school students in the U.S. is actually 5% lower than the corresponding figure for black students, and 1% lower than the figure for Hispanic students. A 2011 Heritage Foundation report gives the details:
- Nationally, per-pupil public education spending is $10,816 for whites; $11,387 for blacks; $10,951 for Hispanics; and $11,535 for Asians.
- The differences are greatest in the Northeast, where per-pupil public education spending is $14,521 for whites; $16,773 for blacks; $16,994 for Hispanics; and $16,195 for Asians.
- In the South, per-pupil public education spending is $9,945 for whites; $10,420 for blacks; $10,201 for Hispanics; and $10,848 for Asians.
- In the Midwest, per-pupil public education spending is $10,090 for whites; $11,371 for blacks; $10,683 for Hispanics; and $11,236 for Asians.
- In the West, per-pupil public education spending $9,874 for whites; $10,970 for blacks; $10,495 for Hispanics; and $10,639 for Asians.