Does Public Spending for Education Improve Anything?



US education expenditures for education as a percent of GDP increased from 4.8% to 7.9% since 1959.


This increased cost for education is a cumulative total of 86% of GDP.


The US now spends two percent more of GDP for education than Japan, who scored 105 TIMSS points higher.


Extraordinary US education expenditures will exceed two years US GDP within three decades.


As education spending increased, SAT scores plunged 98 points and left the US dead last in education quality.


Including all costs, each student in Los Angeles schools costs more than $9,000 per year.


The US Statistical Abstract reports the cost of education to be 9.3% of GDP, 1.4% higher than reported by the US Department of Education.



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The debate surrounding how to improve education is always framed by "liberals" that education spending must forever be increased.  But does this improve education, quality of life of students, society as a whole, or the financial condition of taxpayers? Has it ever?  Can it ever?   The only way, but the guaranteed way, to know for sure is to compare education costs to education outcome across states and nations.  If spending more for education was followed by higher incomes or test scores, then the return on the investment (ROI) can be justified.  If it's not, then probably there is no ROI, and public spending for education must be stopped, or outlawed, just as our Forefathers intended when they separated state from religion.

It's hard to imagine that the U.S. which spent more than $600 billion for education last year is the same U.S. which spent a scant $17 billion just four decades ago, because so many things in addition to education have changed so dramatically since then.The purchasing power of today's mostly two-working-parent families is a third of what it was for the mostly one-working-parent families in 1959.  The divorce rate was half, the murder rate was a third, the illegitimacy rate was a fifth, and one tenth as many Americans were in prison.  The trade deficit was in the black, rather than $400 billion in the red like it is now.   White families could watch television without having their privacy invaded by black faces and black voices and black violence and black music and black actors.  Blacks weren't killing seven Whites every day, and Whites weren't accused of hate crimes for being proud of their race.  Most American children had nary a concern about school violence, but now many of them must pass through metal detectors just to get into class.   A third grader could bring a switch blade to class so he could whittle something out of a potato, but now a butter knife in his lunch pail gives him notoriety as a criminal.

Not a single gun control law had been passed and third graders learned how and WHAT to shoot, without having the urge to shoot up their school.  22,000 gun control laws since then turned schools into battlegrounds and defending yourself into a crime.  Bringing a Bible to school would get you an A and bringing condoms to school would get you suspended, but now it's exactly the opposite.  Getting pregnant out of wedlock was the absolutely most embarassing thing imaginable, but now pregnant teens are homecoming queens.  Getting high meant a bottle of beer, but now not even crack cocaine is enough.

And SAT scores were 98 points higher.

Annual Education Cost per Student, dollars




IIAEP/NAEP Crosslink Score

Washington, DC





US Public










New Hampshire





US Private










US Catholic














US Home School




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Even if schools played no role in this rampant social pathology, the simple fact that SAT scores dropped one point for each extra $6 billion we now spend for education every year is enough to hold the educators accountable.  And it's enough also to give us an incentive to see where else we failed our children by spending too much for their education.  If education spending ever had the chance to  improve schools at all, then Washington, D.C. would have had the very best schools in the world, because they spend $8,393 per student, which is higher than every state in the union and more than twice as high as Utah, at $3,969 per student.   But students in Washington score dead last on every standardized national test they've ever taken, while Utahs' students score close to the top every time. Students in Washington scored 17.8 on ACT composite which is the bottom of the scale, while students in Utah scored 21.5 which is the top of the scale. Only a few states scored higher than Utah, and it's not because they spend more for education.  The very students who scored even higher than the highest scoring state Oregon, at 22.7, were the students who cost us taxpayers nothing--home schooled students--who scored 22.8.  We must learn something from the fact that spending nothing to educate somebody else's child gives that child one of the highest scores in the nation.  This is a point you must remember for the balance of this analysis because it's the key to our success.


The least expensive schools in the US are the Catholic schools which cost only $1,527 per year per elementary student and $3,699 per high school student. Conversely, the average American public schools cost $4,772 and $6,086 which is 3 times and 1.65 times more, respectively.   It costs $35,508 more to provide a student with a 12 year public education than it costs to provide him with a 12 year Catholic school education, yet students from Catholic schools consistently score more than 100 SAT points and up to 31 NAEP Math points higher than students from public schools.  If the 5 million American high school students getting ready to graduate this year had attended Catholic rather than public schools, the total cost of educating them over the last 12 years would have been $177.5 billion less than it was, and their SAT scores would have been 50-100 SAT points higher.

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Seven key differences between Japanese and American educationeducostcountry.gif (35429 bytes)  
  1. Japan's public expenditures for education are half of ours, 2.6% of GDP, versus 5.2% for the US.

  2. Their private expenditures for education are 35% higher than ours, 2.3% of GDP, versus 1.7% in the US.

  3. Their 8th graders scored 105 points higher than ours in TIMSS math.

  4. Three quarters of their teachers but less than one fifth of ours are men.

  5. 86% of the Japanese population has taken calculus while only 6% of ours has.

  6. Their classrooms have two to three times more students than ours, up to 60 in a class.

  7. Their students have spoken school prayer twice daily.


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See educostgdp.xls for references.


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  1. SAT scores dropped 98 points sat.htm
  2. US Statistical Abstract, 1999 education spending was 9.3% of GDP
  3. Education costs per student by state 2000348.pdf
  4. Japan's public education expenditures are half of ours c054b01.xls
  5. ACT scores of home schooled students five points higher than Washington, DC.