NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

America's Public Schools: More Centralized, More Expensive

September 10, 2014

The United States has only increased spending on education, rising from $5,650 per student in 1970 to $12,608 per student in 2011, in inflation-adjusted dollars. Yet, academic outcomes have not improved. Why is our public education system producing such poor results? Research Fellow Michael McShane of the American Enterprise Institute explains that bureaucracy and centralization have stifled schools and kept competition out of the educational marketplace.

According to McShane, the problem is not a lack of spending. Not only has the amount of money spent per student exploded, but McShane notes that some of the highest levels of per-pupil spending actually take place in the poorest cities. For example:

  • The city of Atlanta spends $13,146 per student annually, while suburban Fulton County spends $9,305 per student.
  • Spending patterns are similar in other places, such as $15,287 in Baltimore City but just $12,940 in Baltimore County.

The problem is also not due to a shortage of academic staff in public schools, says McShane. For example:  

  • Since 1950, total staff in public schools has increased 386 percent, compared to a 96 percent increase in students.
  • Much of that number, however, is due to an increase in administrative staff, as teachers increased 252 percent since 1950 while non-teaching staff increased 702 percent.
  • Still, there are more than 3.7 million teachers in the United States today, far higher than the 800,000 doctors and 1.3 million active-duty servicemen in the military.

McShane explains that school districts have become larger and more centralized over time. While there were 119,000 school districts in 1940, there are just 14,000 school districts today. With this centralization has come bureaucratic control, along with pay systems based on service rather than performance and a tenure system that keeps teachers in their jobs. According to McShane, tenure began as a legitimate way to keep politics and patronage out of the education system, but it has morphed into a system known for "protecting incompetent teachers and making them more expensive at the same time."

Additionally, many educational reformers have sought to impose standardization into education, creating accountability systems. But what was an admirable impulse, writes McShane, has only led to more federal requirements for states to evaluate and test students and teachers. Standards, he says, are good ideas, but he encourages the development of accountability systems at the district and state levels in order to accommodate local needs and concerns.

Source: Michael Q. McShane, "Back to bad schools," Washington Examiner, September 8, 2014. 


Browse more articles on Education Issues