NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 21, 2010

It costs a fortune to send kids to school.  Figures in the Statistical Abstract of the United States show that we are spending $11,749 per pupil per year in the U.S. public schools, grades pre-K through 12.  That is an average, says P.J. O'Rourke, a contributing editor with the Weekly Standard.  

In March, the Cato Institute issued a report on the cost of public schools.  Policy analyst Adam Schaeffer made a detailed examination of the budgets of 18 school districts in the five largest U.S. metro areas and the District of Columbia.  According to Schaeffer school districts were understating their per-pupil spending by between 23 percent and 90 percent.  The school districts cried poor by excluding various categories of spending from their budgets -- debt service, employee benefits, transportation costs and capital costs: 

  • Los Angeles, which claims $19,000 per-pupil spending, actually spends $25,000.
  • The New York metropolitan area admits to a per-pupil average of $18,700, but the true cost is about $26,900.
  • The District of Columbia's per-pupil outlay is claimed to be $17,542; the real number is an astonishing $28,170 -- 155 percent more than the average tuition at the famously pricey private academies of the capital region. 

School districts also cheat by simple slowness in publishing their budgets, says O'Rourke: 

  • The $11,749 is from 2007, the most recent figure available; it's certainly grown.
  • The Digest of Educational Statistics (read by Monday, there will be a quiz) says inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending increased by 49 percent from 1984 to 2004 and by more than 100 percent from 1970 to 2005. 

What are we getting for all this money, asks O'Rourke? 

  • National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test scores remained essentially the same from 1970 to 2004.
  • SAT scores in 1970 averaged 537 in reading and 512 in math, and 38 years later the scores were 502 and 515.
  • American College Testing (ACT) composite scores have increased only slightly from 20.6 (out of 36) in 1990 to 21.1 in 2008.
  • The extraordinary expense of the D.C. public school system produced a 2007 class of eighth graders in which, according to the NAEP, only 12 percent of the students were at or above proficiency in reading and 8 percent were at or above proficiency in math. 

Source: P.J. O'Rourke, "End Them, Don't Mend Them," Weekly Standard, June 21, 2010. 

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