U.S. education system — the disconnection between spending and outcomes
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The lack of equity in access to quality education, soaring tuition rates and student loan debt in the United States is often associated with an insufficient public spending on education.

However, a closer look at the numbers suggests that such notion is far from the truth. Among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations, the U.S., in fact, is amid the highest spenders on all three categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Nevertheless, high levels of student loan debt, below OECD average student achievement, and high disparity in school quality are characteristics of the U.S. educational landscape. 

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The federal government is often criticized because education spending only makes up a small portion of its budget —approximately three percent.

In 2012, the federal government spent $107.6 billion on education. However, since schools in the U.S. are primarily funded by state and local governments.

In 2012,  the U.S. spent $869.2 billion, the total amount spent on education is rather approximately one trillion dollars. A comparison among the OECD nations is useful to put this amount into a perspective.

The U.S. spends approximately $12,401 per student on public elementary and secondary schools, an amount that is 35 percent higher than the OECD average of $8,789. The U.S. exceeds OECD average also by spending twice as much on tertiary education. However, the high level of public spending does not translate into an overall access to a high quality basic education for all pupils.

K-12 education here is characterized by extreme disparity in quality of instruction, learning environment, and outcomes. The quality of education students receive is highly correlated to the privileges their parents have.

Unlike other developed countries such as Finland or Germany where parent privileges do play a role, but not to the extent as in the U.S., because in those countries, a certain—what they consider—minimum level of quality in education is believed to be a given; a basic human right. Circumstances such as seen in the U.S.A. where school quality can fall below an acceptable standard, where students may be instructed in dysfunctional, run-down buildings, exposed to violent crime and other serious disruptions are unlikely to occur. 

Several factors contribute to the disconnection between money spent and outcomes: waste and mismanagement of funds as former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee illustrates at the example of Washington D.C., inefficient bureaucracy, extensive spending on redundant equipment and technology, and brick and mortar. Closely related to waste and mismanagement is the lack of transparency in reporting of spending and lacking accountability, which make it easier to misspend monies.

However, the most serious challenge to U.S. education is ideology; a capitalistic ideology that puts profits over individuals—even when the affected individuals are children—and religious ideology that influences the content of curricula. These ideologies explain why schools that need the public monies the most can be allocated less than privileged schools, creationism is still taught, evolution is rejected by many, and abstinence only sex education is believed to be an appropriate option in the 21st century.

U.S. education system is increasingly turning into another of her many “industrial complexes”, as priorities shift from serving and educating, to profit making. Dismantling public schools is among the main goals of education restructurers even though comparative analyses from other developed countries show that solid public education is the fundament on which strong and healthy societies are built.

The disconnection between priorities and purposes is best illustrated by the extensive amount of money spent on school sports that does not actively involve majority of pupils in physical exercise or improve their health otherwise: 10-14 percent of students in 31 U.S. states and more than one-third (34.9%) of U.S. adults overall are obese. School sports do not create stronger communities, as often suggested, either. Otherwise, communities would come together to support disadvantaged schools, instead of competing with those. The truth is, school sports is a big business, just like education is becoming increasingly more a big business. Priorities of big businesses are not educating our children, but promoting their trade and making money.

We can sit around and discuss the pros and cons of this and that policy as much as we like. However, in the meantime, nothing changes the fact that America’s children need basic education in healthy, nurturing environments, appropriate for a developed nation of our standing, indiscriminate from parent privilege; a standard that we are, to-date, unable to meet. It is solely up to us if in the future, we want to build a stronger educational foundation that is worthy of a country of our caliber or keep up the status-quo.           

Alev Dudek is a German American scholar who experienced both school systems first hand. She is also a writer who regularly publishes in German, as well as U.S. sources such as Huffington Post. 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.