Mr. Szafir is the education policy director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. Mr. Lueken is its education research director.
Yet, despite these expenditures, we have failed to create a world-class education system. Among OECD countries, the U.S. ranks 27th in math, 17th in reading, and 20th in science. Less than one-third of all U.S. students are proficient in math and reading. We also struggle to educate poor children. More than half of the OECD countries had higher portions of resilient children, poor children who manage to perform in the top quartile of students in OECD countries, than the U.S.
This trend of high spending for, at best, lackluster student performance reverberates across the country, and the Badger State is no exception. In Wisconsin, about 88% of all students are enrolled in the “one-size-fits-all” traditional public school system, which has educated children the same way for decades. Wisconsin spends $1,219 per child more than the U.S. average, ranking 16th out of 50 states in expenditures for public elementary and secondary education.
But, according to the Global Report Card, a product of the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform, the average public school student in Wisconsin scores better than only 52% of students in economically developed countries in reading and 47% of students in math. This is so, even though Wisconsin spends $3,078 per pupil more than the OECD average. When compared to Canada, our largest trading partner, and Singapore, an economic competitor, the average Wisconsin student’s performance in math exceeds only 39% and 29% of those countries’ students, respectively. This does not bode well in the hyper-competitive 21st century global economy.
The defenders of the education status quo are devout in their belief that more money for public education will fix these problems. A report that we co-authored, however, throws cold water on this theory. We studied the impact of spending on student educational outcomes for all Wisconsin school districts over a period of at least five years. The results of our econometric analysis did not find any reliable statistical evidence indicating that increases in spending on Wisconsin public schools improved student performance on the ACT, college-readiness, graduation rates, or proficiency on the state’s accountability exam.
This does not mean that government spending on education is completely meaningless. Instead, our findings show that indiscriminate spending on traditional Wisconsin public schools may have reached a point of diminishing marginal returns, a common phenomenon in business. Holding other inputs constant, additional dollars spent on public schools will not produce proportional benefits in student outcomes. In other words, a dollar spent in a developing country, like India, is likely to have a bigger impact than in Wisconsin.
These results may surprise some, but it is consistent with the vast majority of recent empirical research on the subject. Economist Mike Podgursky from the University of Missouri, along with James Smith and Matthew Springer, for example, found no statistical evidence that spending on Missouri public schools was an important determinant for student outcomes. Economists Eric Hanushek and Julian Betts both reviewed existing studies on school inputs, concluding that there were no reliable findings to argue that government spending enhanced student achievement.
For years, many policymakers declare victory after instinctively throwing money at the traditional public school system, with little evaluation as to whether children are actually learning. This is the equivalent of a baseball team’s success being measured entirely by the size of their payroll. As nonsensical as that sounds, the effect of this type of thinking has been dire for our schools and children. We have an outdated “one-sized-fits-all” education system that costs too much with far too little to show for it.