Spend, spend again

Our current approach on education ensures we won’t succeed.

By Patrick R. Gibbons
  • Thursday, July 24, 2008

Left-leaning politicians like Barbara Buckley, unionistas like Lynn Warne of the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA), and journalists like Erin Neff consistently bemoan Nevada's lower-than-average per-pupil spending on education.  Implicit in their constant return to this statistic is a misguided belief that spending more money on education naturally leads to better education results.

Sadly, this is a nationwide trend – less wealthy, sparsely populated states like Nevada constantly chasing the tails of larger states thanks to the conventional wisdom created by these education spendthrifts. Nationwide, education spending has increased dramatically, but the results have not improved.

Hardly anyone today thinks the quality of education has increased considerably over the last several decades.  Yet from 1961-2005, per-pupil education spending in the United States increased by 247 percent, adjusted for inflation.

In fact, per-pupil spending hikes on public education from 1961-2005 were so massive they dwarf the rates of price increases in housing, automobiles and even gasoline, and have outpaced increases in personal income as well. 

During that span, houses grew significantly in terms of size and amenities, but prices rose by only 159 percent. 

Automobile prices only increased by 49 percent, while improving fleet mileage and increasing horsepower, comfort, road manners and safety.

The average American has seen his income increase by only 58 percent over that same period while shouldering the burden for spending increases on public education at three times that rate.

Even the cost of gasoline only increased by 69 percent from 1961-2005.  Prices have gone up sharply in the few years since, but even in 2008, gas prices are just 135 percent higher than in 1961.  Had gas prices risen at the same rate as per-pupil spending on public education, we would have paid about $6.18 a gallon in 2005, almost $2 higher than the peak price in 2008.

With most Americans in an uproar over paying about $4.20 a gallon, the Left has made demands that we need to find alternative energy sources, no matter the cost.  But when it comes to education, the Left continues to insist that we still don't pay enough while making every attempt to eliminate the possibility of education alternatives.

Is all of our public education spending producing students who are smarter and more capable than the students of 1961?  Most indicators – test scores, drop-out rates, etc. – suggest the answer is no.  Yet we are still asked to pay 247 percent more, no questions asked.

Fortunately, there is a silver lining for the Silver State.  While Nevada received a grade of "D" in educational quality in a recent "Leaders and Laggers" report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the state does get a bigger bang for its buck than California, which spends about $1,300 more per student and is ranked below Nevada in "return on investment" in public education.  That means we spend less and do better, which ultimately should be the goal behind any investment.

Nevadans need to ignore the bellyaching of the education spendthrifts who clearly care more about increasing education spending than they do about actually achieving greater results.

Other places such as Florida, Arizona, Iowa, Main, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., all have implemented school choice programs in one form or another, saving a total of more than $400 million since 1990, according to Dr. Susan L. Aud, a senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

In Nevada, we can either continue to play the broken record of "spend, spend, spend" until our taxpayers are broke and our children remain under-educated, or we can do something creative and try real reform.

Patrick R. Gibbons is a researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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