Does increasing public school spending improve learning outcomes for children?

Key Findings

  • Public school spending between 1990 and 2013 increased by 28%, adjusted for inflation, while graduation rates and academic outcomes remained flat.
  • Public school graduation rate in 1990 was 76%, in 2013 it was 77%.
  • Trend data on academic outcomes for Washington state public school students has remained largely unchanged for years.

Research question: Does more education spending improve outcomes for students?

Many lawmakers assume that if they spend more public money on public schools, graduation rates and academic outcomes for students will improve. Washington Policy Center was asked to examine this assumption and report on the correlation, if any, between increases in public spending and actual outcomes for students.

Answer: No apparent correlation.

Using state data, our research found there is no apparent correlation between sending more public money to school districts and higher graduation rates or improved academic scores for students. In fact, state figures show that while lawmakers have increased public spending on schools sharply in recent decades, graduation rates and academic learning for students have remained flat. Here are the details.

Discussion

Washington state has vigorously implemented the policy of spending more public money on schools, yet graduation rates remain stubbornly low. In 1990, total public spending on public schools, including federal, state and local sources, was just under $5,000 per student ($8,884 in inflation-adjusted 2013 dollars).

In the 2013-15 state budget lawmakers are significantly increasing public spending on school districts, bringing spending from all sources to $11,400 per student, the highest level in state history. Some school districts, like Seattle, spend more than $13,000 per student, about twice the tuition at many private schools.

Spending per student has increased by 28% since 1990, in inflation-adjusted dollars. In other words, taxpayers are providing nearly one-third more money to educate each student than in the past.

Despite the consistent rise in public education spending, Washington’s graduation rate has remained flat. The U.S. Department of Education reports in 1990 only 77% of Washington’s students graduated from high school. Although spending has increased, there has been no improvement for students: in 2013, 77% of students in Washington state graduated from high school. The graduation rate at many private schools typically exceeds 90%.

Over the period tracked by the U.S. Department of Education, Washington’s graduation rate rose and fell, but it never exceeded 77%. Nearly one in four Washington public school students fails to graduate, leaving many young people to embark on adult life without an adequate education, putting them at greater risk of unemployment, lower living standards and restricted life opportunities.

Academic outcomes also remain flat. The average scale scores for Washington students on the nation’s report card, the National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP), consistently fall between 200-300, out of a possible score of 500. Trend data on academic outcomes for Washington state public school students has remained largely unchanged for years.

The three graphs show the rise in spending per student on K-12 public education, the state graduation rate over time and student academic outcomes report by the National Assessment of Education Performance. The numbers show no correlation between providing an increased level of public money to school districts and improved graduation rates or better academic results for students.

Download a PDF of this Legislative Memo here.