PHOENIX, AZ — Arizona spends less on the typical student than the rest of the country, according to new figures released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau. And while it’s easy to say more spending on schools and teachers is a good thing, studies have been mixed on the effect public education spending has on learning outcomes and school completion rates.
Spending per American student for pre-K through 12th grade increased 3.7 percent to $12,201 during Fiscal Year 2017, the agency reported. That number ranged from as low as $7,179 in Utah all the way up to $23,091 in New York.
Arizona spends $8,003 per pupil, the data showed. Salaries and wages account for $4,751 per pupil and worker benefits make up $1,514 per student. Arizona joins Utah, Oklahoma and Mississippi as the four states who spend the least in the US.
Across the nation, spending increased in 2017 due largely to an increase in revenue for school systems, the Census Bureau said. Public education revenue from all sources amounted to $694.1 billion, up 3.4 percent from 2016.
New York, Washington, D.C., Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont spend the most money per pupil.
Education is essential to a community’s success, helping to lift people out of poverty and boost shared prosperity. As the World Bank Group puts it in its 2018 World Development Report, “today’s students will be tomorrow’s citizens, leaders, workers, and parents.” Therefore, a good education is an investment with “enduring benefits.”
But the effect that education spending has on student learning is muddied.
On the one hand, The World Bank writes that while there is a “strong rationale” for public investment in education, the relationship between spending and learning outcomes is “often weak.”
“In global learning assessments, for example, although higher per-student spending initially appears to lead to more learning at the poorer end of the global income scale, the correlation largely disappears once controlling for countries’ per capita income,” the organization said. “This finding suggests that the correlation is driven more by economic development than by the level of public spending.”
The findings, the authors wrote, suggest education systems and even schools in the same system differ in their ability to translate money into smarter kids.
Conversely, researchers at Northwestern University wrote in 2018 that several studies using larger data sets and somewhat experimental methods came to a different conclusion. These studies “overwhelmingly support a causal relationship” between increased school spending and student outcomes.
“All but one of the several multi-state studies find a strong link between spending and outcomes indicating that money matters on average,” the authors wrote.
Spending is more effective in areas with established Head Start programs, the paper said, and the marginal impact on school spending may also be dependent on the strength of the unions.
The paper acknowledged that the exact context in which increased school spending would most likely improve student outcomes “remains an open question.” But one thing appears clear: By and large, the question of whether money matters is “essentially settled.”
“Researchers should now focus on understanding what kinds of spending increases matter the most, and also in what contexts school spending increases are most likely to improve student outcomes.”
Patch national staffer Dan Hampton contributed to this report.