Placing a Value on Education

Just how much money is spent on public elementary and secondary education? In the early ‘60s, the expenditure per pupil (in constant dollars) was $2,290. By 1980-81, the cost had more than doubled to $4,664. By 2000-01, the expenditures were expected to reach an all time high of $7,079 per pupil. If you count expenditures for postsecondary education, we are talking about nearly $700 billion, or 7.1 percent of the gross domestic product.

While this may sound like a lot, you may be surprised at how we stack up internationally. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the global mean expenditure per elementary and secondary student in 1999 was $4,850, well under the amount spent in the United States. Our current spending level puts us in third place behind Switzerland and Austria. Not number one, but a respectable position nevertheless. But, when measuring expenditures as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), we did not fare nearly as well. In fact, we did not even make the top 10 list. In 1999, the United States spent 3.8 percent of its GDP on elementary and secondary education.

According to the OECD, the average for all countries was 3.6 percent, with the top 10 countries averaging better than four percent. Although there was a positive relationship between a country’s wealth and its expenditures on elementary and secondary education, that same relationship did not carry through when comparing wealth and the share of the GDP committed to education.

For example, take the United States and Korea. The per capita GDP in the United States is $33,280. In Korea, the per capita GDP (in equivalent U.S. dollars) stands at $13,647 — less than half that of the U.S. Yet, Korea spends four percent of its per capita GDP on elementary and secondary education, compared to 3.8 percent in the U.S. Granted, our dollar contribution is greater, but what about our dedication to educating our students?

This dedication to education shows. In a new report published jointly by OECD and UNESCO, entitled Literacy Skills for the World of Tomorrow, based on data gathered in the context of the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA),“Students in Finland are among the world's best in terms of reading literacy, while students in Japan, Hong Kong-China and Korea lead in mathematics and science, according to a newly published survey of 15-year-olds in 43 countries. By contrast, students in several Latin American countries lag seriously behind in all three areas, even after taking account of lower national income levels.”

The United States took top honors for the performance gap in reading skills between students from rich and poor families along with Argentina, Chile, Israel, Portugal, Mexico, Peru and Brazil — not something to be proud of. Fortunately, the report also concludes that an efficient, well-structured education system can help to overcome many of the socio-economic hurdles that affect children's learning abilities. Here is where we have the opportunity to shine. Even with all of its shortfalls, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has caused education agencies around the country to regroup, reorganize and reconsider the way they are doing business. By implementing NCLB accountability requirements and research-based reform, we have an opportunity to close that gap.

When looking at international comparisons for postsecondary education, the United States fares much better. When it comes to expenditures per student, the U.S. takes first place with expenditures of $19,220 per student. Switzerland comes in second with expenditures of $17,997, and Canada takes third. When it comes to percentage of the GDP, we still end up in the top three — a respectable finish. Higher education is also feeling the effects of budget cuts caused by the slow economy. Like the K-12 system, higher education agencies are looking inward for improvement. In a May 2003 report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO), issues of quality and funding topped the list of the most important issues in higher education. While the challenges identified were financial, the focus was on achievement, affordability and access. Once again closing the gap and proving the value we place on education.

Deb Moore is SP&M Editor-in-Chief. She can be contacted at