With teacher pay so much in the news thanks to the Chicago Teachers Union strike, it's worth taking a quick look at a study of states' school spending from State Budget Solutions that has a refreshingly blunt title: "Throwing Money at Education Isn't Working."
State Budget Solutions is a project of the Arlington, Va.-based Sunshine Review, which provides information about and advocates for transparency in state and local governments. In the interest of dealing with the pure politics of the group quickly: You'll notice at the bottom of the study's front page on SBS' website that one of the group's policy "partners" is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative think tank in Washington that has greatly angered liberals and advocates of traditional public education for its work in statehouses pushing digital learning and school choice, among other policies.
Now, on to the study itself, which is authored by Kristen de Pena. It says that total K-12 spending in the U.S. reached $809 billion in 2010, citing research by the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, via the Online Colleges website. It also says that education spending doubled between 1970 and 2012.
But despite this level of spending, SBS says, the academic performance of American students, particularly on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (known as TIMMS) administered every four years, has not kept pace with the spending, especially when compared to other countries. SBS says that U.S. students have trailed countries like Canada and Finland on TIMMS by anywhere from 40 to 65 points. despite the big influx of cash for schools, and cites a report by Alan S. Brown (a freelance writer and editor) and Linda Brown (a special education teacher), writing for Tau Beta Pi, an engineering honor society, as the source for its comments on TIMMS.
But it's also worth pointing out that the paper authored by Alan S. Brown and Linda Brown cited by SBS notes that "students in affluent suburban U.S. school districts" (which often spend a great deal on their public schools) scored nearly as well on the TIMMS test as students in top-performer Singapore.
The study also puts this spending jump in light of recent state budget problems: "Likewise, a State Budget Solutions report revealed that aggregate state debt exceeded $4 trillion in 2012. Hundreds of thousands of students rely on education funded by states with the largest deficits, including California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois."
SBS also uses the ACT, a college entrance exam, as a proxy for efficacy, noting that Texas has scored below the national average on the test for three consecutive years despite high levels of spending. (California and New York have strong ACT scores despite similar funding levels, the report notes.)
The report also urges more local control, which it argues will promote both more transparency and more effective allocation of money: "As a result of centralization, states have less authority to develop state-specific metrics to accurately measure education initiatives," it states. "Localized control results in more narrowly tailored metrics and a better understanding of failure and success based on those metrics."