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The Bottom Line K-12 Redesign: A Financial Overhaul

Crossposted at Real Clear Education

[Editor’s Note: Other articles in the K-12 Redesign series: Perfect Time for a K-12 Redesign, School Calendar, Achievement Instead of Time, Retooling Testing, and Graduation Requirements. Future articles will explore additional components of a K-12 educational redesign.]

The United States leads the world in K-12 education spending yet lags behind 25 other developed nations in K-12 student achievement. When it comes to student learning, China leads the world by a significant margin — followed by Hong Kong, Finland, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Taiwan, and the Netherlands, rounding out the top ten. An additional 15 countries earn a spot on the list ahead of the United States, which places a pitiful 26th overall.

China Lapping the U.S.

Surveying student scores in reading, math, and science, China dominates, ranking first in the world in all three categories. As the case with their overall first-place ranking, China achieves a sizeable gap between itself and the next closest country behind it in each subject subcategory. Comparing China’s student achievement to the United States’ — 26th overall, 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 33rd in math — it’s safe to say that China has lapped the U.S. more than once in the world education race.

According to Clint Bolick and Kate J. Hardiman, China continues to emerge “as our greatest threat and adversary, economically, militarily, and politically. China threatens freedom not only for its own people but around the world. But its K-12 education system is far more effective than ours, and if it continues, its economy will quickly overtake America’s.”

It’s not rocket science to recognize that the U.S. will not continue to remain the most powerful and productive nation in the world while having a poorly performing education system. It’s safe to say, “our economic competitors are cleaning our clock, producing far more high school graduates per capita who are highly educated in math and science and equipped to compete and solve problems effectively in the twenty-first century economy.” Dangerously, China is leading the way.

U.S. K-12 Public Education Spending

Despite poor K-12 public school student performance scores on the world stage, the U.S. continues to spend more than almost every other nation on this endeavor — over $720 billion annually. Taxpayer money funds nearly $15,000 per student per year in U.S. public schools. Divide that by the current 180 school days, and that’s over $80 per day per student on average. New York and Washington D.C., in fact, spend well over $125 per day per student.

Consider the numbers in terms of spending for a single classroom: 25 students at $80 per day per student equate to $2,000 spent daily. Multiply that daily classroom cost of $2,000 by 180 school days. The amount is shocking — $360,000. In other words, our public education system spends on average more than one-third of a million dollars for a 9-month school year for a single classroom of students. Even if the teacher salary and benefits were a generous $100,000, the remaining balance would be $260,000. That’s an exorbitant price tag to pay for factors beyond the teacher in each classroom of K-12 students.

The data clearly reveals the current U.S. K-12 funding model is not producing robust, widespread student learning. In fact, student scores continue to slip. For example, the U.S. recently moved two spots farther down the world rankings in math, from 31st to 33rd.

President Biden’s Method

Eager to throw more money into an ineffective system, President Joe Biden proposed pumping $130 billion into K-12 public education by his second day in office. Alas, this immediate 18% annual spending increase won’t advance student achievement any more than past unsuccessful attempts to fund our way out of a failed system. Nor will Biden’s $130 billion additional funding plan shore up the staggering learning loss resulting from closed schools. As Donald Nielsen explains, “investing more money into a failed system will simply produce a more expensive failed system.”

The gravely faulty misconception is that more money will produce better results. However, often times the added funds fuel bureaucracy as opposed to benefiting students. The compelling argument is centered on the notion that to care about children is to spend more money on public education. This emotionally driven tactic passes increased K-12 public education funding again and again at the federal, state, and local levels without requiring improved results. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores of high school seniors reveal that in spite of almost tripling education spending in inflation-adjusted dollars over the past 50 years, academic performance has remained stagnant.

In no other industry would it be reasonable, let alone acceptable, to ask consumers to pay more money for a failing product, hoping the manufacturer will improve future products. Yet that is the course of action, through taxpayer dollars, that occurs in our K-12 education sector. Extensive research has found that there is a strong correlation between the amount of education spending per student and student performance when the annual amount is less than $5,000. “However, above that minimum amount, the correlation between the amount of spending and student performance is nonexistent.”

With the U.S. spending nearly $15,000 per student per year and Biden’s current $130 billion funding plan allocating on average an additional $2,600 per student, the total is an excessive and unwarranted $17,600. If only that amount reached the classrooms. Instead only 54.8 cents of every dollar trickles down to teachers and students. The rest is eaten up with educational bureaucracy of which the U.S. spends almost double the amount per dollar than that of other developed nations — most of which substantially outperform our students. Systemic change, not additional funding, is the avenue for K-12 student performance improvement.

Public Versus Private Schools

Public schools spend on average 80% more per student than private schools. More specifically, according to U.S. Department of Education 2016-2017 data, federal, state, and local governments combined to spend an average of $14,439 for every student enrolled in K-12 public schools. That is contrasted by private schools spending an average of $8,039 per student during the same year.

Looking at student outcomes between public and private schools, there is a clear distinction. Private schools, spending significantly less money per student, achieve higher standardized test scores regardless of subject matter or grade level. Graduation rates are higher, as is college matriculation. More specifically, while public schools only graduate 85% of students, private schools matriculate upwards of 95% to college and universities.

The Financial Overhaul

The history of our government spending on K-12 education, which rises with each passing year, has proven that spending more money does not equate to increased student learning results. Therefore, additional funding should not be viewed as the solution to improving U.S. education. Nor is it a prerequisite for redesigning the U.S. K-12 education system in order that it cultivates American student achievement scores on par with other developed nations.

An education redesign, starting with a financial overhaul, is necessary if the U.S. will have a shot at remaining competitive with China, and others, in the global economy in the future. Educating our children and teens at a level comparable to these leading countries is the cornerstone. As opposed to expanding our K-12 public education funding, we need to spend the already allocated astronomical amount of money smarter.

Within the existing system, funding formulas must be redesigned in order that money follows students to where they attend school, known as backpack funding. Bolick and Hardiman explain, “Imagine the transformation if students were the primary source of public school funding. Schools would be focused on attracting and retaining students by offering a distinctive, high-quality, responsive educational product.”

Also, necessary is consideration to the reality that some students cost more to educate than others. The extensive bureaucratic hierarchy and personnel infrastructure of public education critically need auditing and trimming. Private schools are able to function more effectively in both operations and cost without these and, most importantly, produce better student learning outcomes. Performance as opposed to seniority teacher pay, as well as the removal of tenure, must be implemented so accountability for student learning is present. Adjunct teachers should be employed to better correlate fluctuating student enrollment numbers with staffing expenditures.

Free Market K-12 Education

Additionally, a K-12 redesign financial overhaul warrants free-market education instead of the existing monopoly at play. Ultimately, we need choice and competition as the drivers to improve U.S. K-12 education. As a nation, we can no longer embrace these principles for the majority of other less important products and services while resisting them when pertaining to our most prized asset and crucial investment — our children and their education.

Our country’s future demands, and children deserve, nothing less than schools producing superior student learning results and providing first class customer service to families. The schools that fail to do so should not only lose government funding but should cease to exist. The U.S. must spend more wisely and redesign our education system to foster and require remarkable results.

Keri D. Ingraham

Senior Fellow and Director, American Center for Transforming Education
Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education. She is also a Senior Fellow at Independent Women’s Forum. Dr. Ingraham has been a guest on Fox News multiple times. Her articles have been published by The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, The Federalist, Real Clear Education, The Washington Times, The Epoch Times, Washington Examiner, National Review, The American Spectator, Daily Caller, The Seattle Times, Puget Sound Business Journal, The Daily Signal, and a host of other media outlets. Fox News has featured her work. Prior to joining Discovery Institute, she spent nearly two decades leading within the field of education as a national consultant, requested conference speaker, head of school, virtual and hybrid academy director, administrator, classroom teacher, and athletic coach. She authored multiple chapters for the book, Sketching a New Conservative Education Agenda, published in 2022. In 2019, she was invited as a contributing author for the book, MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and co-authored “From Gutenberg to 5G.” Dr. Ingraham was awarded the George W. Selig Doctoral Fellowship in 2013. The following year she received the “World Changer in the Field of Education” award from Regent University.
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