No More Spending


These days, virtually any debate over education at the state or federal level ultimately turns to the question of money.

But there appears to be very little correlation between spending more on education and getting better results. States with high per-pupil spending levels sometimes perform poorly, and states with low per-pupil spending levels sometimes perform well.

The most thorough research on this topic has been conducted by Eric A. Hanushek of the University of Rochester. In a 1994 study he edited for The Brookings Institution, Hanushek concluded: “The nation is spending more and more to achieve results that are no better, and perhaps worse.”

New York, which has among the highest per-pupil spending levels in the nation, offers a few clues as to why Hanushek is on to something.

In New York, a $4 billion increase in state aid to schools over the past decade allowed schools to hire more teachers, drop class sizes, and increase salaries across the board. Yet, a study from May 1996 by the government-reform group CHANGE-NY found that “teachers, not students, have been the main beneficiaries of increased education spending in New York. Hiring more teachers, at a steadily rising average salary, has not boosted overall reading skills or college preparedness.”

And typically what doesn’t go to teachers’ salaries tends to go to administrative overhead. For years, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the independent New York City schools’ bureaucracy argued over how much of school spending actually ended in the classroom. A 1994 study prepared by the accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand proved the mayor was right. Only forty eight cents on the dollar was being spent on classroom instruction.

The success of Catholic schools — and, more recently, charter schools — underscores that beyond a basic level of support “more money” is not the key to better educational outcomes. Catholic schools have done a much better job, in many cases, of fostering a sense of community, high academic standards, a disciplined environment, committed faculty, and high levels of parental interest.

Their enviable track record also is produced with far fewer resources, even in urban areas. For example, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York runs one of the largest school systems in the nation (public or private), serving more than 109,000 students with just over 40 central administrative employees. By comparison, the New York City school system with more than 1 million students has ten times more employees with a central bureaucracy of more than 3,500. The Catholic school system’s costs are about $2,600 per pupil at the elementary level and about $3,600 per pupil for high schools. The New York City public school system’s costs exceed $8,300 per-pupil.

More recently, in the twenty nine states with charter — school laws, more than 700 charter schools — all schools’ with open-admission policies — have shown that they, too, can produce quality schooling at a fraction of the cost of traditional public schools. These schools, although still public, are operated free of many of the union work rules and bureaucracy of traditional public schools and are held to strict performance standards.

All charter schools operate at a lower per-pupil cost than their neighboring public schools. Charter schools typically receive only 80 to 90 cents on the dollar when compared to the amount of public aid received by traditional public schools in their area. With this lower amount, they are expected to do and pay for more. For example, charter schools have to cover their building and lease costs within this lower amount because they do not receive the additional building aid available to traditional public schools. Meanwhile, all charter schools are held accountable for student performance, and face the prospect of losing all public aid if they fail to educate their students well.

Despite their financial obstacles, most charter schools have been performing admirably. A research team from the Hudson Institute finds: “They’re generally small, safe schools that are clear about their mission, staffed by dedicated teachers, and supported by devoted parents, many of whom supplement the schools’ resources with their own perspiration.” Overwhelmingly, charter schools serve minority and economically disadvantaged students, often targeting students with special needs who get lost in larger public schools.

In the end, we know what works: a rigorous curriculum, clearly defined standards, meaningful methods of assessment, involved parents, good teachers, and a safe and orderly environment that allows learning to take place. Giving parents the freedom to send their children to schools that deliver what works is the answer, not giving more money to schools that don’t.


Carroll, Thomas W. “No More Spending.” Crisis (February 1998): 14.

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962


Thomas W. Carroll is executive director of A Better Choice (ABC) in Albany, NY.

Copyright © 1998 Crisis

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