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The one where we fact check

• Dr. Matthew Ladner recently wrote an article called Jeb Bush Gets an F on School Spending. If had checked facts however they would have found Governor Bush’s claim on global spending to have been entirely accurate.

First a few notes on spending per pupil rankings: they are slippery. For instance, a few years ago the Goldwater Institute noted seven different states all claiming to be 49th in K-12 spending.  This can be explained by multiple factors, including the existence of multiple ranking which include or exclude different sorts of categories, people referencing older rankings, and/or perhaps in some cases a relationship with the truth on the part of some inspired by the writings of Saul Alinsky. Seeing so many people claiming that they rank precisely 49th raises an eyebrow to say the least-why not 50th? looked into the following statement by Governor Bush “And we spend more per student than any country in the world.”

Two days ago the Washington Post reported on the most recent OECD study:

The United States spent more than $11,000 per elementary student in 2010 and more than $12,000 per high school student. When researchers factored in the cost for programs after high school education such as college or vocational training, the United States spent $15,171 on each young person in the system — more than any other nation covered in the report.

That sum was slightly higher than some developed countries and it far surpassed others. Switzerland’s total spending per student was $14,922 while Mexico averaged $2,993 in 2010. The average OECD nation spent $9,313 per young person.

International comparisons are potentially even more problematic than domestic rankings. Countries use different currencies, different measures include or exclude different things, etc. Governor Bush’s claim however receives backup from the most credible source: the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development).  Snoop around long enough in the OECD statistics and you will find charts like this one:


This chart shows the United States to be not only the highest spending nation, but sporting international math scores below nations such as Poland, Hungary and the Slovak Republic which spend only a small fraction of what the United States spends per pupil.  The question to ask is why the United States hasn’t organized K-12 education in such a way to produce above average results for far above average spending per pupil. Moreover, a recent study by the United States Department of Education looking at PISA scores by student subgroups in the United States found truly disturbing findings. American Hispanic and Black students scored closer to the lowest scoring participating nation (Mexico) than they did to top ranked countries or American Anglo students. Judging from the above chart, the United States spends more than four times the amount per pupil compared to Mexico, and I would venture to guess that almost every school administrator in Mexico would happily trade student poverty problems with the United States if given the opportunity.  The catastrophically low performance of inner city American schools despite globally high levels of spending drives the need for reform.

All children deserve to have a system that sets them up for success in life. Americans support their education system at a globally high level but do not receive globally competitive results in return. Nothing will change about this fundamental challenge if Switzerland were to spend a bit more money than us next year.


About the author

Dr. Matthew Ladner @MatthewLadner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is the Senior Advisor of Policy and Research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He previously served as Vice President of Research and Goldwater Institute. Prior to joining Goldwater, Dr. Ladner was director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice. Dr. Ladner has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform. Most recently, Dr. Ladner authored the groundbreaking, original research Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education, outlining the future funding crisis facing America’s K-12 public education funding. He also coauthors the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform. Dr. Ladner has testified before Congress, the United States Commission of Civil Rights and numerous state legislative committees. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received both a Masters and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. Dr. Ladner is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.