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Cross-posted from Education Week

In this blog, I will indulge in some simple arithmetic.  Let’s start with the total expenditures for our schools, which were $506,827,246,000 in the most recent year for which we have data.  Next, let’s note what that comes to if divided by the number of students in the system, to get per pupil expenditure for primary and secondary education. That is $12,236 (page 102).

Now we are going to look at how these figures compare to the expenditure on education of the other OECD countries (page 219).  First, though, I need to explain that the OECD, in order to make sure that these are apples to apples comparisons, distinguishes between “core expenditures” and “total expenditures.”    The reason that they make this distinction is that some countries, like ours, include the costs of things like local high schools’ competitive sports programs and school lunches and student transportation in their education budget and others don’t.  So the fair comparison between countries should be based on their “core” budgets, because that budget only includes items that are included in the figures for the other countries being compared.  By that calculus, the U.S. spends $10,123 per student on average on its elementary and secondary education students.  Tiny Luxembourg comes in at $16,123.  All the other OECD countries come in lower.  The OECD average is $7,617.  Canada comes in at $7,937, Australia at $7,634, Finland at $7,188 and Korea at $5,759.  This is not a randomly selected list.  Every one of these countries save Luxembourg is among the countries with the best student performance in the world.  It turns out that the average expenditure per pupil for the countries just named is $7,129, which is $2,994 or nearly 30 percent less than the US spends, on average.

We also know that the performance of American students on the 2009 PISA assessment came in almost exactly at the average for the 65 countries participating in the survey, a goodly number of which are developing countries like Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Peru, Panama and Albania.  OECD divides these 65 countries into three groups: those with performance not statistically different from the OECD average, those with scores that are statistically significantly above the OECD average and those statistically significantly below the average.  The United States, as we have seen, places in the first group.  Canada, Australia, Finland and Korea are all in the second group.

Now let’s put all this data together.  Imagine first that the United States was able to get the same results from its education system that it currently gets, but was able to do so for the average cost to the taxpayer incurred by the taxpayers in the top-performing countries.  If we could do that, we would save about 30 percent of the total cost of our elementary and secondary education system.  That turns out to be $149,868,817,000.  Yes, that is almost $150 billion dollars.  That is real money, even today, about equal to one sixth of the entire federal deficit.

But now look again.  Imagine that we figured out not only how to create an education system that is as efficient as that of our competitors but also as effective as that of our competitors.  That requires that you imagine the United States placing among the high flyers on the OECD PISA league tables, say, ten years from now.

Now, I could get really excited about a presidential candidate that set that kind of goal for the United States.  And guess what?  Though it is in its own way no less ambitious, though it would have even greater benefits for the United States, it should be far easier to achieve than putting American astronauts on the moon.  This goal, after all, has actually BEEN MET by other countries.  We know it can be done.  We have examples to look at.  And we will pay an incalculable cost if we do not set this goal for ourselves.  Any takers?