Here’s a simple fact that most people don't realize: public education spending per student in the United States has increased dramatically since 1970.
This point doesn’t match the narrative that most of us are used to hearing. You may hear “Public schools in the U.S. are underfunded!” or “We have to pay our teachers more!” Both of these would imply a flat or even decreased spend.
But here’s the data, straight from the U.S. Department of Education (source) shows a different story: our spend per student more than doubled since 1970 even after you adjust for inflation!
Some important context about the data:
- Again, this is adjusted for inflation. The nominal dollar spend per student in 1970 was only $955 per student vs. the inflation adjusted total of around $6,500.
- As noted, this is per student spend. As the number of students has increased since 1970, the trend would be an even steeper increase if we looked at total spend.
- This is spend in all public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S.
As with any single data point, it only paints part of the picture. This shouldn’t be read as much more than what we see: per student spend has increased dramatically since 1970. There’s a lot of nuance around education spend. Here are some things to consider:
- The spend increase here does show that we are “investing in education” as a society, evidenced by the dollar increase.
- That increase isn’t evenly distributed - some places have certainly spent a lot more per student, while other places have probably seen only modest increases
- How those dollars get spent is another question. There is evidence that it [hasn’t gone to teachers], and instead has gone to administrators, fancy buildings and equipment, and more.
- That spend increase could be worth it if we saw outcomes improve. But we have not (stay tuned for next week’s post to cover this). This should make us question the return of adding more incremental dollars to education without first understanding and then addressing the underlying issues.