Advocates on all sides of the public education spending-versus-results debate can cite various statistics to make their respective cases. Some argue that more money leads to better results. Others (myself included) cite studies that show spending more dollars per student―at least in the ways our public school system has spent them―makes little or no difference in educational outcomes.

Now, another fascinating fact has come to light. Oregonian education reporter Betsy Hammond recently wrote an article about what she found in an old 1957 U.S. Census document entitled “Finances of School Districts.”It turns out that Oregon spent more per pupil that year than any other state―a whopping $356, which was almost 40 percent more than the national median of $256. Of course, these were “current operating expenditures” and likely excluded items such as construction and debt service, which today raise total per pupil spending on the order of sixteen percent.

While Hammond didn’t inflation-adjust those numbers to what they would be today, it’s easy enough to do. Using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Consumer Price Index Calculator, Oregon’s $356 in per student spending in 1957 dollars is the equivalent of about $2,919 in today’s dollars.

So, what are we actually spending per pupil in Oregon today? The latest full data reported by the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, shows Oregon spent $11,391 per enrolled student in the 2009-10 school year. That’s nearly four times what we spent in 1957. And while it is about four percent below what was being spent nationally ($11,841), when you compare that difference to the fact that per capita income of Oregonians recently has been almost nine percent below the national average, you will see that Oregonians are actually funding our public schools at a higher level than the nation, compared to our ability to pay.

Even acknowledging that there are slightly different ways to count students (enrolled, average daily membership, fall enrollment, etc.) and different ways to tally spending (current or total), the order of magnitude between what we spent in 1957 and what we spent recently is so large that such differences pale in comparison.

Any way you look at the numbers, after adjusting for inflation, Oregon is spending several times what we spent per public school student in 1957. So, what are we getting for that increase?

State by state educational outcome comparisons are hard to come by for the 1950s, but more recently the national publication Education Week has rated all state school systems on a number of criteria. In 2010, 2011, and 2012, Oregon ranked 43rd overall, which gave us a C- report card score. On K-12 Student Achievement alone, we rated a D all three years. Unless Oregon rated an F on some similar scale in 1957, it is hard to see how spending nearly four times as much per student as we spent then is giving us any appreciable bang for our harder-to-come-by bucks.

So, rather than look for ways to spend in real terms, say, five times what we did in 1957, we should let families spend the dollars we do have on the public, private, religious, or home schools of their choice. School choice breaks up the monopoly control of teachers unions and the educational establishment. Unleashing consumer power gets more bang for the buck in other areas of the economy; it’s time to put it to work in education.

5 thoughts on “Oregon’s Real Education Spending Has Quadrupled Since 1957

  1. My question: What percentage of the education dollar is spent on special ed and on the poorest performing students? I suspect that too much is being spent on remedial and repeats and on courses designed for those with various kinds of deficits…intellectual and other.

    1. Neil, special education can account for around 15 – 20 percent of public education current expenditures. While that category has been rising faster than other costs in the system, it doesn’t account for most of the real per student increase since 1957.

  2. I worked overseas for a major NGO for 31 yrs and in 12 countries. In some of these we assisted in education programs. In none of these developing countries did the public schools spend any amount at all on the least bright, and least disciplined youth. They do allocate what money there is on the most likely students and those that work hardest and to best effect. Our own declining economic performance is in some degree related to misguided efforts to guarantee an equality of outcome in education. Massive expenditures are directed toward programs and costly staffing in an attempt to pound an education into the heads of children who will not, and CAN not but marginally benefit from this investment. There are practical limits to the amount of public revenues taxpayers are willing to divert to the least educable students and those who are too indisciplined to conduct themselves correctly in a classroom.

    America is no longer exempted from the economic realties that rule the rest of humanity. The sooner we wake up to this fact the better off we are going to be.

  3. This question has been answered by William Bennett, once head of Dept of Education. If his analysis correct. We don’t have much time in which to do something with the K-12 system we have. Because that is what most will end up trying to make a living with…. It isn’t working and patch work remedies are NOT going to make it all come right.

    “Is College Worth It?” provides a thoroughgoing deconstruction of the “of course it is” delusion. It turns out that for too many, and maybe even most of our young people, the answer to this central question is, sadly, “no.” “Whether the standard of excellence for higher education is cultivating the mind and the soul or maximizing financial return on investment, most of higher education fails most students,” the authors write.

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  4. This quote (below) is taken from a speech by the current head of Health and Human Services. The only reason anyone would make such a strange and actually nightmare-ish suggestion is solely because some especially pampered and essentially uneducable “groups” are proving- as one might expect- incapable of graduating at the same ratios as native born white Americans.

    My words are not racist, but what Ms. Sebelius proposes doing is implicitly based on race issues. THIS is racist! How can any thinking American fail to see that the costly mess in public education is wholly due to a political conspiracy to ignore the real reasons behind our failing system. Educators are turning the world upside down trying to work around the problem, and all the while refuse to acknowledge that this problem exists. That is insane and too ruinously expensive to long continue.

    “Children who don’t get a pre-kindergarten education, ideally from birth to age 5, might fall behind and “may as well drop out” by third grade, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said on Wednesday at an event to garner support for President Barack Obama’s $75-billion proposal to increase pre-school enrollment across the country.

    Sebelius said investing in pre-school education would bring “prosperity to all our people.”

    “If we want to be a competitive country, if we want to make sure that we can achieve prosperity for all of our people, we have to figure out a way to have productive citizens throughout our population,” Sebelius said at the event, marking the one-year anniversary of an Educare school in the District of Columbia that serves children 6 weeks old to 5 years.

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