Those advocating for more funding for public education point to findings that say North Carolina spent $7,996 per student during the 2007-08 school year (latest figures available), seventh lowest in the county. State per student spending ranged from a low of $5,765 (Utah) to a high of $17,173 (New York). Nationally, per student spending, increased 6.1 percent from the year before to $10,259.
While the message grabs headlines, the statistics are of limited value. North Carolina is criticized for below average spending on education. As it turns out, 38 other states are also below the national average. But come to think of it, does anyone live or work the national average? The figure is skewed upward by high spending states. A better indicator of “average” spending habits would have been the median.
Considering the regional variation in cost of living and labor markets, how useful is it really to compare states to a national average? Obviously the cost of living in Manhattan is greater than Raleigh or Oklahoma City.
The overwhelming inference here is that more state spending drives educational achievement. However, there is plenty of research — state scores on NAEP tests and the SAT, for starters – that debunk that myth.
Another significant problem is that per student expenditure data usually undercounts actual spending. Capital expenditures are excluded from calculations as are transportation costs, as well as the costs associated with many non-instructional or community based programs. How much are is the undercounting? In an analysis of per pupil expenditures of several large school districts around the country, the Cato Institute found, actual per pupil spending was — on average –44 percent higher than the figure published by the school district.
Next time you see such comparisons read carefully and be skeptical.