Update: The Washington Post added a correction to the op-ed in question after the publication of this op-ed.
Robert Pianta, the dean of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, claimed in a Washington Post op-ed that “public funding for schools has actually decreased since the late 1980s, adjusting for constant dollars.”
However, data from the National Center of Education Statistics shows that real per-pupil spending clearly has not decreased since the 1980s. In fact, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending has actually increased over the last three decades.
Pianta’s claim is incorrect regardless of how the data is sliced. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ database, inflation-adjusted education funding increased by at least 36 percent since 1989 — whether you look at state, local, federal, or total dollars per pupil. The increases are much larger if you look at overall spending amounts rather than per-pupil totals.
The subheadline of Pianta’s Washington Post column alleges, “the one thing we haven’t tried in the past 30 years is sufficiently investing in our schools.” In addition to being incorrect, it is also not clear what spending level would qualify as “sufficient” to Pianta. After all, the nationwide data shows the U.S. already spends over $14,700 per student each year.
How much does each state allocate toward education? The Washington Examiner‘s Jason Russell previously summarized this information for each state using Census Bureau data from 2013. We now have more recent data from 2017 showing that about 28 percent of all state budget expenditures go toward education.
This statistic has remained relatively steady over time. Census Bureau data from 1993, the oldest period of data available, also indicates that about 28 percent of state government expenditures went toward education across the country.
The 2017 education spending data, the most recent complete data available, indicates that Vermont (35 percent), Texas (34 percent), New Jersey (33 percent), Georgia (33 percent), and Connecticut (33 percent) allocate the biggest proportions of their budgets toward education. Washington, D.C. (17 percent), Hawaii (20 percent), Alaska (22 percent), California (23 percent), and Florida (24 percent) allocate the smallest proportions of their budgets toward education.
However, Washington, D.C.’s place at the bottom of the list in terms of education spending as a percentage of its budget is deceiving due to D.C.’s unique budget situation. The federal district notably spends over $28,000 per child each year, which is almost double the national average.
There’s plenty of room for disagreements about education policy, and there are reasonable arguments to be made regarding the optimal level of education funding and the best type of system to facilitate education spending. But we should all be able to agree on basic verifiable numbers.
Let’s vigorously debate how to improve schools and student outcomes. But let’s be factual: Inflation-adjusted, per-pupil education spending has increased by at least 36 percent since the 1980s.
This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.