On the Education Budget and the Crisis in the States; Or: What Does Money Have to do With Good Public Schools?

In the documentary "Waiting for Superman," there's a clip of Bill Clinton campaigning in 1992 in front of a teachers' union group. Education reform, he tells the teachers, "is not about money. Except when it is about money."

This is supposed to make us laugh and deride the received wisdom of the Democratic Party. After all, everyone knows Washington, D.C. has the highest per pupil spending in the country and some of the worst achievement outcomes. Everyone knows the United States is spending more per pupil than any country except Switzerland, yet our kids are getting their asses kicked by those smarty-pants Singaporeans. 

And it's true. Except when it isn't. Take a look at this scatter plot comparing per pupil spending to high school graduation rates. As you can see, some states–like D.C. and New York–are spending a heck of a lot and getting a heck of a little. But overall, as the good folks at the New America Foundation point out, there is no easy conclusion we can draw about the relationship between spending and academic achievement.

 Grad rate ppexpend 082

Consider New Jersey: It has a very diverse student population, spends the most per pupil of any state in the country, and also has the fifth highest graduation rate. It has achieved this through wise, court-mandated investment in academic enrichment and social supports–including universal pre-K–for low-income kids.

All of this is a long wind-up to say the following: There's a lot to admire about President Obama's 2012 education budget. He makes some sensible compromises–ex; allowing interest to accrue on grad school loans (a graduate degree is likely to lead to a higher income)–while investing in the preparation of new STEM teachers and incentivizing some proven reforms, such as high-quality pre-school. 

But it's important to remember that federal dollars account for less than 10 percent of national education spending, and at the state level, schools are reeling. The Times had a great story on this yesterday, about a Texas district forced to close a school, lay off 38 teachers, and even trademark its mascot "in a frantic effort to raise cash." Texas legislators are proposing $3.5 billion in cuts to the public school system, which could lead to over 100,000 layoffs. 

And by the way: None of this is the fault of big bad unions or massive public spending. Texas has long been a low-spending, right-to-work state where less than 2 percent of teachers are unionized. 

In this climate, in which good teachers are losing their jobs and taking pay cuts, Obama's budget increases represent just a drop in the bucket. All of this puts in discouraging perspective the president's call, in his State of the Union address, for the nation's best and brightest to enter the teaching profession.

6 thoughts on “On the Education Budget and the Crisis in the States; Or: What Does Money Have to do With Good Public Schools?

  1. Mike the Mad Biologist

    One problem with this analysis, however, is that it doesn’t take into account cost-of-living in different states. The $11,000 per pupil in WI could be comparable (or even higher) than the $13,000 in MA, for instance.

  2. Jonathan

    It would be nice if you could circle each region. New England? Nice circle. Mid-Atlantic? Wider, but definitely overlapping New England, and owns a distinct part of the graph. The South? Take out Virginia, and there is a clump, with few other states inside. But divide that clump into two pieces, and notice that the lower piece is the lower South….

    Circles are fun. And illuminating

  3. nick

    yeah, I like circles–but how about this? let’s draw a little circle around NV, then draw a little arrow pointing to the circle, and draw three little letters as a caption:


    ’cause that is horrific.

  4. dbeach

    Nevada claims they’re not really that bad, and they have a point. Graduation rates are quite difficult to calculate for a district with a lot of transients; for instance, Clark County, Nevada. If a student moves away without providing the district with forwarding information that allows them to confirm that the student is still in school, that student counts as a dropout, even though it’s quite likely that the kid really is still in school somewhere.

    That said, even by Nevada’s own reckoning, they’re graduating less than 70% of their students. Here’s a link with more info: link to lasvegassun.com

  5. Tom Stormcrowe

    The outlier data looks really interesting. I’d love to have a look at the original data in the raw, and draw multiple random samples to see if the outlier trend is a constant, and if so, see if I can eliminate other variables like SES status to see if the upper quartile outliers just simply have a better program.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>