For a half a century, since Congress began to pour federal taxpayers' dollars into public school education, the spending has had two purposes: to raise achievement and to narrow the gap between high- and low-income students and between minority and white students. We the taxpayers have spent roughly $2 trillion on these efforts since 1965. On this income tax day, let's ask: Did we get our money's worth?
If we look at the class that graduated from the public schools in 2009, we find that we spent over $151,000 per student to bring him from the 1st to the 12th grade. That's nearly three times as much as we spent on the graduating class of 1970. Despite that massive spending, overall achievement has stagnated or declined. The gaps between minority and white students are unchanged in science, while they have slightly narrowed in reading and math. It's not clear whether the federal spending deserves any credit for this very small narrowing of the gap. To sum up, we have little to show for the $2 trillion in federal education spending of the past half century. Yet, it now costs three times as much to provide essentially the same education as we provided in 1970.
Even this bad news fails to portray the big picture. As productivity was falling in public schools, it was rising everywhere else. Nearly all the products and services most of us buy have gotten better, or more affordable, or both, over the past two generations. The fact that there is no education improvement even while spending has skyrocketed is a disaster unparalleled in any other field. This gigantic spending has put the brakes on our nation's economic growth by taxing trillions of dollars out of the productive sector of the economy and spending it on programs that were not effective.
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