The State of K-12 Government-School Funding

by Don Boudreaux on July 17, 2011

in Education, Myths and Fallacies

Here’s a letter to the New York Times:

Writing ominously that “All across America, school budgets are being cut, teachers laid off and education programs dismantled,” Nicholas Kristof accuses us Americans of recklessly endangering our future (“Our Broken Escalator,” July 17).

Context calms these fears.

While Mr. Kristof is correct that “70 percent of school districts nationwide endured budget cuts in the school year that just ended, and 84 percent anticipate cuts this year,” a quick web check reveals that these cuts average no more than about five percent from the previous year.  Further, these cuts overwhelmingly reflect simply the completion of the distribution of the $100 billion in federal ‘stimulus’ funds shoveled from Washington to state school systems in 2009-2010.

More broadly, data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics show that inflation-adjusted per-pupil expenditures for K-12 public schools have steadily and dramatically increased over the past half-century.  In 2007-08 (just before the recession and the ‘stimuli’) real per-pupil funding was 19 percent higher than in 1999-2000, 33 percent higher than in 1990-91, 83 percent higher than in 1980-81, 129 percent higher than in 1970-71, and 272 percent higher than in 1961-62.

Mr. Kristof’s portrayal of the funding of K-12 schooling in America is recklessly uninformed.

Donald J. Boudreaux

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vidyohs July 17, 2011 at 12:15 pm

It comes as no surprise that Nicholas Kristof parrots the leftwing narrative. It is what leftwingers do, it’s called the Big Lie told often enough will find believers.

Kirby July 17, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Per-pupil funding doesn’t always help the pupil either. Also, it seems that the increase between 61-62 and 70-71 is huge. Why is this?

Don Boudreaux July 17, 2011 at 12:22 pm


Bruce July 17, 2011 at 3:54 pm

This is strictly a question, not an implied answer. Could it be school desegregation, assuming non-schools in the south were barely funded.

Monte July 17, 2011 at 12:19 pm

The “per pupil” verbiage leads people to think that students get harmed whenever there is any financial reduction to bloated budgets. Most school systems are under-water with increasing salaries, benefits, and retirement; yet, they want us to think that scissors and glue will be taken from our ‘lil darlings.

Don Boudreaux July 17, 2011 at 12:23 pm


Will Q. July 17, 2011 at 12:33 pm

The only thing that would have really brought the rising cost of education into perspective would have been to show the overall inflation compared to the cost of education.

Tim July 17, 2011 at 12:41 pm


This was another letter which could have been better. Once again, you open the door of anyone sympathetic to Mr. Kristof to say that 5% is a lot of money. By failing to link increased funding with stagnant performance, you do not address the underlying issues. As I read this, you appear to be saying, “Yes. It’s unfortunate that school budgets are being cut. But at least it’s only a modest 5%.” Is this really your argument?

Don Boudreaux July 17, 2011 at 12:50 pm

Fair enough. I was granting his premise – dubious, at best – that funding a key to good schooling. But not every issue can be address in a single letter. My sense – when I wrote the letter and still now – is that it’s worthwhile to expose a prominent columnist’s instance of describing funding carelessly.

Moreover, most people have no idea of just how much per-pupil real funding has increased over the years.

Jim July 18, 2011 at 8:09 am

If I remember the last study I reviewed, school spending and pupil performance decoupled statistically some time back in the 70s. Spending has tripled or quadrupled since then.

One of the most powerful short articles I read on k-12:

Public schools now cost more than most private schools.

Jim July 18, 2011 at 8:17 am

Sorry, spending has only doubled. Found the graph at Carpe Diem.

Jim July 18, 2011 at 8:20 am

Cato does a fantastic job of researching and demonstrating that public figures on spending do not include all the costs, so the amount spent is often much higher.

ArrowSmith July 17, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Oh wow family budgets have cut back 20% in many cases and somehow the child-RUN have survived. Hey Tim – my guess is you are a BIG supporter of government indoctrination centers AKA SCROOLS.

Tim July 17, 2011 at 5:49 pm


ArrowSmith July 17, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Somehow those frontiers-people did a better job at teaching the basics in a log cabin with just a blackboard and notepad. Now they have all these computers and $80 textbooks and for what? It seems the priority these days in K-12 is teaching “diversity” and how to put a condom on.

Damien July 17, 2011 at 1:04 pm

What is the evidence for that? 11.5% of whites were illiterate in 1870 and I doubt that it was much better before that. For blacks, 80% were illiterate (

Now you might say that those who did get to go to school in a log cabin long enough to learn the basics learned better than current students. Once again, I’d like to see the evidence. And there would still be the fact that universal compulsory education means that we would be comparing two very different populations, that the environment would be completely different, etc.

ArrowSmith July 17, 2011 at 4:37 pm

What I know about frontier schools I learned by watching “Little House on the Prairie”. The kids learned basic writing, arithmetic, reading and a little Jesus thrown in. What’s wrong with that model?

vidyohs July 17, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Are you arguing against Arrowsmith, or just using his post as a platform for your own view point? The only sentence in which you addressed Arrowsmith’s comment you agreed with him, so whats with the rest of your comment?

Where is your evidence that Arrowsmith is wrong?

Damien July 17, 2011 at 5:53 pm

Since he has provided absolutely zero evidence in favor of his assertion, I don’t think it’s up to me to offer evidence that he is wrong.

vidyohs July 17, 2011 at 6:31 pm

I would think Arrowsmith and I both expect you to know a tad bit of American frontier history before asking for evidence. Our history is full of people highly successful in many fields that received their education in one room log cabin schools all across the American frontier. Benjamin Franklin for one, Abe Lincoln for another.

The evidence is there, that you don’t know it speaks volumes about your own education.

Gil July 17, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Vidyohs and Arrowsmith is of the kind that a “street education” is the best education of all and kids in the early days would be working on the farm or in the factory getting the best education instead of wasting their youth in “schoolling”.

ArrowSmith July 18, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Gil – think about everything a child can learn on a factory floor compared to stupid classroom! Work is good for the soul starting age 2.

porkrhino July 20, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Because all students are exceptional geniuses like Franklin and Lincoln, who read widely on their own time, were extremely hard-working, and largely self-taught,

vidyohs July 17, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Personally I long ago grew disgusted with the people who stick to the narrative that funding of schools is the answer and the only answer. Those people who believe raising the funding per pupil will always result in a more educated pupil are stuck on stupid, or the alternative which is deliberately and habitually lying about funding to gain the increased power that comes from having more money to control.

Those who want it will get it no matter what the obstacle (no money at all) that is in their path. Those who do not want it will pass it by no matter how enticing it is made with high dollar toys, programs, and luxurious facilities.

Van July 17, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Governments answer for failed programs is always more money and more programs.

Krishnan July 17, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Imagine running a business that sells a product that the consumer/customer does not like – and imagine the business RAISING prices so that the “product” can be made better for the customer – yea, I imagine such a business would not exist or go out of business quickly – except of course Government in all it’s glory – the worse the services are, the more money they demand to “make it better” … I can see why competition and choice are dirty words for educators

Perhaps if the K-12 system imposes a Union Fee on each student, the NEA and others may finally pay attention to their dues paying student members? But yea, I know – the teachers will voluntarily up their protection monies so they are not out-bid by the other interest group called “students”

S July 17, 2011 at 9:29 pm

If you want to compare education to a business model, then consider this: imagine having a business where you have to “hire”‘ EVERYONE who applies. Get the riff raft out of the schools and you’ll have a much cheaper business model. Oh but wait – that would mean no American dream. Gee guys, I guess Billie Holiday was right. God bless the child. And ur damn taxes too.

Jim July 18, 2011 at 8:58 am

I get your point, but consider that a market in K-12 would quickly diversify away from one size fits all. I imagine for those who can not sit in a classroom (would the full time classroom model even survive?) other opportunities would arise, including work and apprenticeships.

Dan H July 18, 2011 at 11:51 am

Your basic economic illiteracy tells me you must be a public school teacher. What do you mean schools have to “hire” everyone who applies? The children are the consumers. You don’t “hire” consumers.

And for the record, I sit on the marketing committee of a private school in my city. The average household income of our students is actually below that of the neighboring school district, and yet we kick their asses up and down the halls in academics, athletics, standardized test scores, etc.

And there’s a very simple reason why… We HAVE to produce. If we’re not turning out quality students in the aggregate, we shut down. That’s all there is to it. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

s July 18, 2011 at 5:41 pm

Regarding the first comment – yes, diversification would happen, and it has already happened, especially in the midwest. Problem is, it’s more expensive to run a small operation than a large one. By pooling resources, schools in the south can run at a much lower cost per pupil than the schools in the midwest with a similar local economic cost of living. (***to explain further – in the south, school districts are run by county; in the midwest, and other parts of the nation, school districts are run by town, and often are tiny, except for the city school districts, which are huge. The tiny midwest town school districts tend to run at a higher cost per pupil than the big county ones. The city school districts tend to run at a higher cost per pupil than the big or little suburban districts due to the higher cost of living in the city as well as higher amount of needs of the students.***)

Regarding the second comment – whether you like it or not, the classroom is like a business. Teachers are like managers. Students are like workers. And they have to produce. You’re comparing apples to oranges, macro to micro, it’s just an analogy. Of course it’s not a business, and of course the students are there consuming, but it’s all compulsory, which is the problem. Goes to show your lack of understanding when you point out your affiliation with private schools – of course they do great, they get to pick who they let in! Exactly my point! And of course the students’ income level doesn’t affect their ability to succeed – just the fact that a parent cares is enough to make a child succeed!

Get the riff raff out of the schools, and bring back vocational education. Get rid of the notion that everybody needs to go to college. Get rid of standardized testing – or at least bring it down to just one or two tests per year, not 14. Bring back tracking, so the kids who care can get to a higher level and not have to wait on the ones who don’t. Start tracking in 4th grade and don’t waste space with deadbeat kids that don’t want to do any home work. Put them to work after 9th grade. This is what they do in other countries – Japan, Germany, China, France, basically everywhere else. We need to do the same to compete.

Notice I didn’t say anything about giving more money to schools districts. Nor did I say anything about private vs. public. The problem is not with the funding, it’s with our culture, and the lack of understanding the lawmakers have about how education works. Which is why I posted on this blog, despite the rude comments about not having any economics background.

Kendall July 18, 2011 at 10:56 pm


Is it fair to assume parents who are paying extra to send their kids to a private school are more involved with their kids education on average than those who don’t? If you want to compare yourself to public schools you would need to forced to teach a geographical group of kids instead of only kids whose parents have chosen your school. You might still outperform the public school but we can’t tell until both schools teach under the same conditions.

porkrhino July 20, 2011 at 5:28 pm

@ Dan H

Captain Smug: check out the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. Public school. I venture to say it is academically more successful than your school because it is more successful than almost anywhere else in the country.

In addition, the only private schools I know of with superior athletics programs actively recruit kids while they’re still in middle school. Many of these schools are diploma mills that first and foremost are designed to win championships in football and basketball.

As for the arts, for one example look at the John Philip Sousa Foundation’s awards for middle and high school band programs. These awards are available to both private and public school programs, and if you look on their Roll of Honor you will see that the list is absolutely dominated by public schools.

Your one handpicked example says absolutely nothing about the quality of every public school in the whole country, and it’s obvious as hell that the only thing that matters in a school is whether students’ parents demand that their students succeed and demand good schools. To imply that parents sending their kids to public schools do not care or that public schools systems all have ignorant teachers and that parents have no control over those schools is absurd.

The problem with the public schools that are bad is that the kids and their parents don’t give a shit about education, which makes things way harder for teachers and administrators, meaning none of the good ones go there. More school choice, and even the complete privatization of education, will do nothing about bad students who don’t want to learn, and if all schools were private and driven entirely by consumer demand those students would simply lower the scores wherever they went, or might not go at all.

Furthermore, to say that all public schools are unresponsive to parent and student demand is ridiculous. Why do these schools have PTAs and elected school boards? When public schools are less responsive to parent demands of quality, it is because they are not making those demands. The fact that the schools are public has nothing to do with parents not making those demands, it is entirely up to the parents and students involved. The structure of public school districts is often a problem and should be simplified to increase access, but that should not lead to “all public education is inferior and brainwashing and should be abolished”, a statement that in all its permutations has been made many times on this site.

porkrhino July 20, 2011 at 5:01 pm

What s is proposing is the antithesis of freedom and liberty. “You’re not intelligent or hardworking enough to be allowed to go to school. Your only choices are learning a trade or working”. Yeah that system has worked great in Europe and East Asia where those vocational students join labor unions that stifle the economy and stratified social classes still exist. What an elitist, ignorant thing to say.

Krishnan July 17, 2011 at 4:15 pm

I am waiting to hear the reasons for cheating by teachers in the Atlanta Public School system “Not enough funding” and “No Child Left Behind” (“It is Bush’s fault”) (never mind some Kennedy had something to do with it)

And there will be calls for INCREASED funding so the poor students of the many Atlanta School system can be taught better than they were and additional raises for the teachers and administrators.

S July 17, 2011 at 9:55 pm

Imagine you just got a new job in which you have 150 people under you. In order to keep your job, you have to get all of them to pass this certain test. 90% of them come to you with the inability to write, read, and do basic skills. Only 40% passed the lower level test last year. 25% show up on a regular basis. 60% have special needs and may be learning disabled, ADHD, or have emotional disturbance disorders. There are another 10% that have low cognition
Levels but are not afforded special needs services because they perform at the level they are capable of. none of them will do homework, and many come To work stoned or hangover. They outwardly defy everything you ask them to do. Welcome to the world of the inner city school teacher.
And yet many teachers make a difference. Would you? What would you do? Would you sacrifice your job because they are going to fail, no matter what you do? I’m not saying that cheating is right, but I understand the pressure these teachers feel, and know why they did it. Many teachers get into education to make a difference. But the inner city school systems are a mess and extremely difficult to work in. Turnover is high. The ones who cheated wee probably in the last stage of their careers, unable to keep up with the presssures that have mounted in the last 4 years. You’ll see a huge exodus of teachers from the system in 2014, which is when all students are supposed to pass every test b/c of NCLB. Then you’ll have a bunch of young and enthusiastic kids joining the teacher workforce. And they will fail as well.
Personally, I’d be more concerned about colleges and universities. There is no accountability.
Sorry for the spelling – smartphone.
Get teachers to make the laws and u will fix the system.

wesley mouch July 18, 2011 at 10:05 am

If everything you describe is true then why would giving you more money (higher teacher pay/pensions) be the answer. You have basically stated that teachers are powerless. Then why continue to fund a powerless group. You are essentially arguing for private schools. The teachers could run the schools as they see fit and pay themselves what they want. Only they would have to COMPETE which is anathema to the teacher’s Union

s July 18, 2011 at 5:45 pm

my response is three comments up

Kendall July 19, 2011 at 8:22 am

I actually don’t think a lot of teachers will leave because of NCLB because it is an unattainable standard. You can’t make everyone above average unless you only teach the above average population.

Kendall July 19, 2011 at 8:19 am

The teachers cheated for the same reason BP took shortcuts, a minority of people will cheat for short term gain whether they are in the public or private sector. That is why corporations have security staffs to prevent other corporations from stealing their ideas.

ArrowSmith July 17, 2011 at 4:39 pm

The operative phrase is “stuck on stupid”. Every time I argue with a liberal about funding and effectiveness it goes nowhere. It’s going ’round and ’round the mulberry bush like with muirbot.

Van July 17, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Private and religious schools regularly turn out students with much higher SAT and ACT scores. They do this on average with 2/5ths as much per pupil spending. Much of the per pupil spending gets skimmed by the administrative complex. A good portion also goes into building these grand buildings and facilities. Hardly any gets down to the student level.

Damien July 17, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Although I support school choice and private schools (with vouchers/tax credits if need be), I think that we need to take into account that private and religious schools do not necessarily have open enrollment policies, which might introduce a bias in reported SAT and ACT scores. If these schools select the students based on academic abilities, then they might very well turn out students who score really high on standardized tests, even though the value added by the school would be very small.

That being said, just the fact that private schools tend to be cheaper and no less effective than public schools is good enough for me.

Krishnan July 17, 2011 at 4:07 pm

I know this discussion is about K-12 – but your reference to resource allocation to anywhere but education/student level is also a problem in Higher Education – and the drop in the quality of just about most 4 year degrees is alarming to say the least and a crisis. Even as this quality (Higher Education) falls, there are calls for increased tuition and increased support for “improving education” so that “everyone can get a college education”

ArrowSmith July 17, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Private schools have a chance to do better because:

* they can expel troublemakers
* they don’t have to take “special needs” kids
* they can set their own standards that correspond with the reality of what kids will need to know going into college

SMV July 17, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Private schools in Swedan o not have thes advantages and they are still making profits and have grown from a tiny sliver to 10% in just a few years.

porkrhino July 20, 2011 at 5:44 pm

“* they don’t have to take “special needs” kids”.

Wow, you’re an awesome person. Imagine a school with a “No retarded or autistic children” policy. Do you really think a school that is that narrow-minded in its selection of students will provide a good educational environment for children? The only things private schools do that really improve education is set higher standards than the cafeteria curriculum of many states (Virginia gives local systems some flexibility in how they structure the curriculum) and kick out trouble makers. Public schools should be allowed to kick out troublemakers, have more discretion on disciplinary policies and curriculum, and be free to set standards above a (significantly raised) minimum. Another thing I would suggest is to allow students to attend out-of-area schools in their district if they are willing to provide their own transportation, which is similar to what schools in my area do (the transfer technically has to be for an “official” reason like taking a language or elective not offered at the base school, but it’s quite easy to BS your way into a transfer).

Pom-Pom July 17, 2011 at 6:04 pm

I wonder how the local and state funding has changed, and their respective proportions.

wesley mouch July 18, 2011 at 10:01 am

Education is sacrosanct and “cutting education is the worst of evils” because the Teacher’s Union is a major funding mechanism for the Democrat party. I fail to see how cutting the bloated pensions of teachers (which would be cutting education) would have any impact on the actual learning of students. Of course we all know that monopolies (Teahers’ Union) tend to raise costs and lower quality. Therefore to improve education abolishing the Education Monopoly and allowing competition might be the best thing that could happen in this country.

Ameet July 18, 2011 at 11:53 am

Also, the more I think about it, spending per pupil should be going down if we were truly taking advantage of innovations.

An example: when I was in high school, practically the only way to learn Spanish was Spanish class. Nowadays there’s Rosetta Stone, TellMeMore (from Auralog), and so on. If these programs are effective, then instead of say needing three to five Spanish teachers, maybe only one Spanish teacher is needed (for a once a week class to review materials and do tests) and the students use the software for the rest of the time to learn. Obviously, kinks would need to be worked out (do not let them move to the next level without passing the test, or somehow monitor that they’re doing all the levels in the learning software), but that’s not impossible. So under this example, wouldn’t the cost of learning a language be less now than ten years ago?

And if that can be done, why couldn’t it be done for the maths, sciences, and maybe even English?

So maybe I’m being a bit of an idiot, but it seems we have the innovations to cut per pupil spending and increase results, but for some strange reason (otherwise known as government monopolies, or maybe a preference for human teaching), we aren’t utilizing them to get the most bang for our buck.

Sheer idiocy. Then again, nothing new with the federal government.

Kendall July 18, 2011 at 11:05 pm

I can’t speak for big city schools but the schools I where I have taught in Missouri (200 to 600 size high schools) have all tried to be responsive to their communities and have been open to new ideas to try to improve student learning. Ameet’s idea of using software to teach is a good one but it has a high initial cost (and sometimes an ongoing cost) and may not work with unmotivated students without constant supervision which would require a teacher.

porkrhino July 20, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Also, nothing can substitute for people. Good schools come from good teachers, good administrators, high expectations by teachers and parents, and motivated students. Software can make tasks easier and broaden the range of activities possible in school, but nothing can take the place of a good teacher who knows his/her students and is capable of intelligent thought. Computers cannot “think”, they are machines designed to spit out information based upon what is put into them. When you call tech support for troubleshooting, do you want a machine and a menu of preset choices and preprogrammed answers or a person?

Nonprofit Marketer July 22, 2011 at 2:51 am

Boudreaux admits that cuts went up to 70% with an anticipating rate of 84% next year. That may not sound too alarming, considering that last year budget cuts were only at a mere rate of 65%.

What happens when we leave numbers aside for a moment and take a hard look at how it translates in classrooms across America? What happens when we put away our calculators and simply try to understand the vast impact wasted opportunities will have in the lives of many real people?

One can argue that these budget cuts are the result of government allocations coming to an end. But most will agree that youngsters growing up today should be afforded the opportunity to get the education they need to achieve their potential and be a valuable contribution to society. Now pick up your calculators again and ask if budget cuts from 65-84% might afford a second glance.

CitizensArrest August 4, 2011 at 11:49 pm

I’m not surprised that no one seems to think a breakdown of what those funds are being spent on is important. Here’s a hint: look into spending increases in special ed and technology, among other things, as a percentage of the increases. The entire discussion on spending remains absurdly simplistic to the point of being no more than misinformation. Local disparities in allocation of funds is also not examined. No useful discussion is possible without taking these and other factors into account. Changes in average annual spending per student is an meaningless statistic. It barely becomes a political talking point even after the addition of other mindless rhetoric.

Ken August 5, 2011 at 12:02 am

This wouldn’t be a political topic if the government didn’t monopolize K-12 education.


Student August 5, 2011 at 11:52 pm

As a Student of “Teacher Education” I see three major problems with future and existing educators.
1. Low Level Independent Thinking Skills – Many (not all) people who go into education do so because its the only thing they know. They haven’t exposed themselves nor been exposed to anything else. This results in a group of teachers that lacks an understanding or interest of how the world works (especially the world of economics).
2. They Loved School (or rather pleasing their teachers) – Many teachers love maintaining the status quo. They loved doing their daily (meaningless) worksheets and receiving their 10/10 score with a smiley face, and they simply expect students to feel the same way. As a result they fail to see that many of their students could perform better if they were given meaningful assignments in which the students could articulate their opinion and perspective. However, as a result of my first point I have little faith that many “professional educators” could articulate a original opinion/ argument, and therefore they could not possibly develop an assignment or assessment that adequately asks students to articulate theirs. Disclaimer – I’m not saying all homework is bad, I am suggesting that it is given priority over authentic learning, intellectual growth, and skill building. This over emphasis results in low retention levels by those that buy into it, and low enthusiasm by those that don’t – both of which result in lower test scores.
3. No one is willing to question the dogma- Most students of education are unwilling to challenge the arguments that diversity is inherently good, tracking is inherently bad, schools are incredibly underfunded, special education is alway effective, and so on. This results from my first point and prevents future reform.

Despite these points I do not think that we overspend on education. Our economy depends on highly creative innovators, skilled workers, and intelligent managers and business owners. And our democracy depends on independent and critical thinkers who are aware of the world around them. So I am left with the realization that teachers should earn a higher salary, but most current teachers don’t deserve one.

I have not yet been able to figure out a hypothetical system were these issues are resolved, but I think school choice, privatization (with vouchers), and allowing experts without degrees in teaching are all steps in the right direction.

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