Debunking The Myth that the U.S. Spends More on Schools

There are two myths abroad in the land concerning money and schooling. One holds that we spend more money on our schools than any other nation in the world. The other contends that money doesn’t matter and we shouldn’t “throw money at the schools.” That these two myths appear to contradict each other is of little import, since both of them are wrong.

I’d like to deal with the “we spend more money” myth. (See p. 10 for an article on whether money matters.) Virtually every conservative worth his or her stripes has chanted this mantra. But they rarely cite any evidence to back up the claim. When there is an attempt to back it up, the alleged evidence appears in peculiar form.

One of the chief educational proponents claiming the myth is true is University of Illinois professor Herbert Walberg. When I took Walberg to task in my “Fourth Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education,” published in the October 1994 Phi Delta Kappan, his response was relatively typical of those who chant the “we spend more” mantra. He fired off a letter to the editor claiming it was, too, true and pointing to a page in the U.S. Department of

Education’s Condition ofEducationto prove that the United States spends more than anyone in the world on education. On the relevant page one doesfind that Walberg is right, but it’s a very odd definition of “the world.” The list contains only the United States and five other nations and yes, we do spend more than they do.

But when one reverts to a more ordinary definition of “the world,” or at least a longer list of developed nations, one finds that Walberg’s assertion is false. No one calculation is wholly satisfactory for school spending: there are a variety of means and they all have some problem in terms of comparability and fairness across nations. It is telling, though, that no matter how the figure is computed, the United States never finishes better than average, and sometimes far below average.

For instance, Walberg’s preferred metric is simply dollars spent per student per year. This, of course, neglects fluctuations in currency exchange rates and doesn’t take into account differences in purchasing power in different countries. Still, if one uses an appropriately lengthy list of developed nations, on this measure the United States finishes 9th of 16 nations.

Using the same list and the metric of spending as a percent of per capita income, the United States finishes 14th of 16.

The 1993 U.S. Department of Education publication, Education in States and Nations, presents figures for school spending as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the 19 developed nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). By this method, the United States finishes right in the middle of the pack. This is the figure I used to challenge Walberg. Walberg objected to this metric, pointing out that different countries had different-sized GDPs. Just because a developing country spends a large portion of its GDP for food, Walberg said, doesn’t mean they eat well.

The nations of the OECD, of course, are all developed countries, but no matter.

Recalculating the amount in terms of percent of per capita GDP handles Walberg’s objection and presents a figure of how much of what each person produces is given over to the schools. This calculation changes nothing for the United States relative to other OECD nations: it is still right at the median amount.

But this figure overestimates the dollars that actually get to U.S. classrooms. The United States is the only one of the 19 nations where more than 50% of the employees of schools are not teachers. This is not because of our “administrative blob,” which in comparison to many industries can’t be found. It occurs because the United States provides many services in its schools that other countries do not, or which they provide in reduced amounts, generally because the services are provided by other institutions in society. In a number of European countries, for instance, children and commuters alike travel on public buses to get to school and work. The United States also includes its school breakfast and school lunch programs under educational spending. And, as inadequate as counseling may be in most U.S. schools, it is far more than in European schools.

Perhaps the greatest consumer of school budgets in the United States, other than regular instruction, is special education. (See article on p. 11.) The education report from the Sandia National Laboratories, for instance, found that spending on regular education had risen just 8% between 1976 and 1990, while special education costs had soared 340%.

In reviewing the history of education in this nation, it becomes immediately clear that: a) the United States has never been generous in its award to public schools, and b) critics have constantly — and wrongly — claimed that the public was not getting its money’s worth for what it did spend. When it comes to dispensing funds, U.S. school-funding agencies might not rightly be called Scrooges, but they might well be dubbed Silas Marners.

  1. The 16 are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, then-West Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

    To get the 19 nations of the OECD, add Finland, New Zealand, Portugal, and Spain, and subtract Norway.

Gerald Bracey is an education policy analyst and writer in Alexandria, Va.