Too Little Education about School Spending

Marc Kilmer Nov 12, 2012

Most Marylanders think that the state government spends “too little” on public education, at least according to a recent poll. But what does that mean? How much would be enough? All too often, the public education debate focuses on how much money is spent without focusing on what that money gets us. This poll simply reaffirms the poor state of the education debate in this country, but attitudes like those expressed in the poll are dangerous to both taxpayers and students.

The Goucher College poll found that 65% of respondents felt the state spends “too little” on public education. The pollsters did not ask for any context for this statement nor did they do any follow up on it. It would have been much more interesting to ask respondents how much they thought the state spends on education. Perhaps they could have noted that the state’s education spending has increased dramatically over the past decade without any increase in student achievement and then asked if the state should be spending more on education. Or perhaps they could have asked if people think that more education funding means better student achievement.

Simply asking if government spends too much or too little on education isn’t very informative, but it is reflective of the usual debate over education. Most people unconsciously equate more education funding with better education. If they see problems in our schools, the usual answer is to spend more. And when schools perform well, usually this performance is linked to high levels of education funding.

All this happens in spite of a fact that is uncontroversial among anyone who studies education policy and education spending: there is no causal link between education funding and student performance. There are school districts with high levels of funding and great student performance. There are also school districts with high levels of education funding and horrible student performance. How the money is spent is far more important than the level of money being spent.

As I pointed out in a 2010 blog post:

One of the most comprehensive reviews of studies on education funding was done by Dr. Eric Hanushek of Stanford University. He found that only 27% of 163 studies found a statistically significant relationship between an increase in per-pupil funding and student achievement. Of those studies, two-thirds showed an insignificant correlation and the others showed a negative correlation. Another study of Dr. Hanuskek finds that input-based education policies, such as increased funding, don't produce results unless you change incentives within schools.

As the Maryland Reporter notes, the state and local governments are already spending a lot on education, and the amount keeps going up:

Although two-thirds of the population feels that the state doesn’t spend enough in education, state and local governments in Maryland are estimated to spend $19.7 billion on education in fiscal year 2013, with the state spending $5.3 billion, according to

Annual education spending in Maryland has increased over $7 billion since 2002 when the combined education spending reached $12.5 billion, with the state accounting for $3.4 billion.

Mark Newgent at Red Maryland has also done great work exposing the fallacy that our education system automatically benefits if more taxpayer money is pumped into it.

The debate should not be about how much money we are spending on education. It should be about whether the money we are spending is doing a good job in education our children. If it is, and more money would increase student achievement, then perhaps we should spend more. But that question is not being answered right now. Until it is, it is simply ignorant to think that one is making an informed statement by saying that the state spends too little on public education.