Numbers game

Where do education-spending ‘rankings’ come from?

By Patrick R. Gibbons
  • Thursday, May 14, 2009

Last week Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that "the state is last in the nation in per pupil spending, and already has difficulty attracting and retaining enough qualified teachers to fill classrooms at the start of each school year."

What source is she using? Any at all?

A state's spending rank has nothing to do with educational quality, as most studies show no correlation between spending levels and student achievement. Interestingly, NPRI did find a correlation between states' per-pupil spending levels and their wealth — meaning rich states will pay a lot for education regardless of the quality. Not exactly the smartest policy.

Even the U.S. Department of Education ranks the United States among the top nations in the world in K-12 education spending, yet most results show that American students are beaten by many industrialized nations that spend far less than we do. Estonia is a good example. The former Soviet Socialist Republic spent just $2,800 U.S. dollars per pupil in 2004.

We've heard this spending refrain many times from teacher-union operatives. Sometimes they and the other ed-establishment rent-seekers vary the claim — sometimes we're 48th, sometimes we're 49th and sometimes, as Warne now says, we're dead last. There is so little integrity in these claims that in 2004 eight different states were being flogged as 49th in the nation in per-pupil spending. One reason for some of the confusion is the variance in what is counted as per-pupil spending. Let's review some of the major sources.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2004-05, Nevada's per-pupil spending level was $8,646 — ranking 38th among the states — when including capital projects and debt service. When looking just at "current spending" (excluding capital services and interest payments) Nevada, said the NCES, spent $6,804, ranking 45th in the nation.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Nevada's per-pupil expenditure level in 2005-06 was $9,738 when including capital projects and interest payments, ranking 31st in the nation. Nevada's "current spending" per pupil was $7,345, ranking 44th among the states.

Even Warne's parent organization, the National Education Association, placed Nevada 46th at $6,230 per pupil in 2003-04. And that was the school year before the most recent massive and irresponsible spike in Nevada government spending occurred.

In 2008-09, the average charter school in Nevada received less than $7,000 per pupil — an amount more than enough, incidentally, to fund scholarships for students to attend private schools. Had Nevada allocated its funds to charters or to such scholarships, the Silver State would have saved tremendous amounts of cash that has gone instead into constructing palatial schools. The Clark County School District alone spends approximately $2,000 per pupil paying back school debt.

That number, however, is not included in per-pupil spending figures. Neither is the bonus money paid to attract the new teachers that Warne wants. The arguments for excluding these expenditures vary, but accumulating evidence suggests that the policymakers and rent-seekers want education to appear under-funded. The reality, however, is that the cost of a public education in Nevada in 2008-09 was actually $13,052 per pupil.

So the real question that needs answering is something else entirely: Are we spending that money on effective programs, or just blowing it on jobs for adults?

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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