A modest proposal

Patrick Gibbons

Throughout the year several Nevadans, including Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley (D-Las Vegas), former governor Bob Miller, casino mogul Steve Wynn and higher-ed chancellor Jim Rogers have claimed that budget cuts to education in would be "devastating" for the children.  These advocates of "Big Education" would like to see Nevada increase spending based on the notion that we "underfund" education relative to other states.

In 2006 Nevada spent $10,400 per pupil (when including construction costs and school debt, adjusted to 2008 dollar values) – an amount that has tripled since 1960 even after adjusting for inflation. Despite these increases the call for increased spending and higher taxes continues.

Here's a better proposal:  Instead of raising taxes on Nevadans to pay for an education system that, despite massive funding increases, hasn't seen improvement in decades, let's outsource our students to Estonia for their education.

Can you find Estonia on a map?

Don't let its obscurity fool you.  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Estonian students not only beat American students on the important Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam in mathematics and science, they did so on a budget, in 2004, of only $2,800 per student – and that is after adjusting for the difference in the cost of living.

Estonia is just one of several countries that outperform the United States in science and mathematics for a fraction of the cost.  The list includes but is not limited to France, South Korea, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Even Slovenia and the Slovak Republic beat the U.S. in science.

While many bemoan Nevada's place near the bottom of the list in per-pupil spending, the OECD in 2004 estimated that in the United States, the total cost of educating a student from primary school through high school was $112,703, which is well above the OECD average, despite the below-average achievement of American students.

Meanwhile, the socialist nation of France outperformed the U.S. by spending only $86,404.  South Korean students vastly outpace Americans for only $67,566 (and they also have monstrous class sizes), while students in the tiny country of Estonia beat the average American on a meager $39,107.

To put that figure in perspective, Estonia can graduate a student who is better educated than the average American for the same price it takes Nevada to get a student into the fifth grade!

If the U.S. were as efficient at educating its students as Estonia, Americans would save more than $72,000 per pupil over the course of his or her education.  For the socialists out there, that is enough money to buy each child health care coverage for the entire time he or she is in school.  For the fiscally conservative a more efficient U.S. education system could save up to $5 trillion over the next two decades.  

If Nevada ran its education system as efficiently as Estonia, state taxpayers could save up to $1.6 billion a year.  Unfortunately, efficiency and performance never seem to register in the minds of today's policymakers.

If more spending on education is the only solution our politicians can come up with, then perhaps we should at least spend that money where we're likely to see results.  We could literally afford to ship, house, feed and educate all of our students in Estonia for the same price we pay to under-educate them in Nevada. Just don't forget to buy your kid a heavy winter coat.

Or if this idea is too wild, maybe we can try new approaches that are proven to work on this side of the pond, like vouchers, charter schools, merit pay for teachers, tuition tax credits, and tuition scholarship programs.  That would be a start.

Patrick R. Gibbons is a researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This article originally appeared in the Nevada Business Journal.