Soaring Spending Fails to Lift Achievement

Published June 1, 2001

After unprecedented increases in federal spending on K-12 education during the Clinton administration, does U.S. public education need still more money?

Teacher union leaders insist it does. “Conservative” President George W. Bush is calling for record increases in education spending . . . but that’s not enough for Senate Democrats, who want another $6 billion just for fiscal 2002.

Two new studies, from The Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council, question the wisdom of opening the spending spigot for public education. While the virtual Niagara of increased tax dollars has benefited public education employees, it hasn’t helped students.

Heritage Foundation Analysis

Since President Lyndon Johnson declared war on ignorance and poverty more than 30 years ago, the liberal application of tax dollars has been an off-the-shelf prescription to alleviate the various woes of the public education system. Total per-pupil expenditures nearly doubled in real terms between 1971 and 1999.

Over the past decade alone, Congress has spent $80 billion to close the achievement gap . . . only to see a widening of the gap in fourth-grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, and no increase in reading scores nationwide.

“A new approach to educating America’s children is needed,” says Krista Kafer, education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, pointing to the Leave No Children Behind Act of 2001 (H.R. 1) as a new prescription for raising student achievement. Kafer’s analysis of H.R. 1, “B+ for H.R. 1’s Education Reforms,” was released on April 23.

“Unlike other education legislation now before Congress, H.R. 1 includes more measures to promote academic excellence, accountability, flexibility, and new opportunities for children left behind by the current system,” Kafer writes, noting such reforms “face major opposition from special-interest groups” who simply want existing programs reauthorized with higher spending levels.

But the clear lesson of the last 30 years is that simply increasing spending on education will not improve education, says Kafer, starkly demonstrating that point with two patient charts of historical data. Despite greater and greater efforts by lawmakers to revive U.S. public education by infusing it with more and more money, the patient’s vital signs showed no response, with NAEP reading and math scores essentially flat-lining since assessments started in the early 1970s.

“The need for genuine reform is clear,” says Kafer. “Federal education programs have not increased student achievement, and continuing to fund them as they are now will leave more children, especially disadvantaged children, behind.”

President Bush’s proposals would reform the education system

  • by consolidating existing funding programs into performance-based grants to the states and districts, giving them flexibility in determining how to use the grants to fit the unique needs of their student populations;
  • by requiring these programs to produce evidence they are boosting academic achievement; and
  • by giving children in persistently failing schools an exit option.

The last reform, which has attracted the most opposition from public school advocates, is the most significant accountability mechanism in H.R. 1. If enrolled at a Title I school that had failed to improve for three years, students could take their Title I per-pupil dollars to another school, either public or private. Victims of school violence would also be eligible to attend other schools. Even the National Education Association’s own survey recently found strong support for such a choice program.

House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio) welcomed the Heritage Foundation analysis of H.R. 1 and urged his colleagues to read it. The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institute whose goal is to formulate and promote conservative public policies.

In a companion analysis of the Senate version of the President’s education proposal, entitled “A Failing Grade for S.1, the Senate Education Committee Bill,” Kafer reports that the Senate effort “resembles current law far more than it does the Bush reform plan,” containing more money but little accountability and no choice.

ALEC Report Card

After examining a broader range of data by state, a new study from the American Legislative Exchange Council arrived at the same conclusion as Kafer’s Heritage Foundation analysis: Spending more on education doesn’t mean students learn more.

Over the past 20 years, expenditures per pupil have increased by 22.9 percent in constant dollars, while standardized test scores have remained relatively constant.

“There is no evident correlation between increasing conventional measures of educational inputs and improving student achievement,” said Tennessee State Representative Steve McDaniel, ALEC’s 2001 National Chairman.

“We cannot keep looking to past practices as a roadmap to future success,” said McDaniel. “There’s an old saying that goes, ‘Don’t throw good money after bad.'”

The data underlying the ALEC analysis was released on April 17 in the eighth edition of the Council’s Report Card on American Education: A State by State Analysis, 1976-2000.

Authored by Andrew T. LeFevre and Rea S. Hederman Jr., the Report Card grades each state using over one hundred measures of educational resources and achievement, from school enrollment and expenditures per pupil to teacher salaries and SAT scores. The comprehensive collection of data is intended to help local, state, and federal policy makers understand how changes in educational inputs are likely to change educational outputs.

Although reducing class size is a top priority for the teacher unions, a series of charts in the ALEC study show no relationship between students per teacher and achievement levels. There’s also no clear relationship between higher teacher salaries–another teacher union priority–and student achievement.

“It is clear that states cannot improve student performance over time simply by tweaking pupil-to-teacher ratios, building more schools, or adjusting the level of federal assistance they receive,” write the Report Card’s authors.

Nevertheless, legislators are under pressure from parents to do something to improve the education system. With two-thirds of America’s eighth-graders reading below the “proficient” level, the need for reform clearly extends beyond the troubled school systems in most major cities.

“We cannot simply spend our way to higher grades,” said McDaniel, calling for reforms such as charter schools, tax credits, and vouchers, which would bring educational choice and freedom to parents and students.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, with over 2,400 legislative members nationwide, is dedicated to the principles of free markets, individual liberty, and limited government.

For more information . . .

Krista Kafer’s Heritage Foundation Backgrounders, “B+ for H.R. 1’s Education Reforms” and “A Failing Grade for S. 1, The Senate Education Committee Bill,” are available on the Heritage Foundation Web site at

The American Legislative Exchange Council’s Report Card on American Education is available for downloading at the ALEC Web site at

Or use PolicyBot, The Heartland Institute’s free online research service, to request the documents in Adobe Acrobat’s PDF format. Point your browser to and click on PolicyBot.