Posted on Tue, Sep. 16, 2003

U.S. tops in school spending, not scores

Associated Press

Given its investment in education, the United States isn't getting the return it expects when compared with the performance of other nations, a report shows.

Among more than 25 industrialized nations, no country spends more public and private money to educate each student than the United States, according to an annual review by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But American 15-year-olds scored in the middle of the pack in math, reading and science in 2000, and the nation's high-school graduation rate was below the world average in 2001.

"The countries that spend more tend to be the countries that do better. But ... it's not a perfect relationship," said Barry McGaw, the organization's education director. "There are countries which don't get the bang for the bucks. And the U.S. is one of them."

Education Secretary Rod Paige, chosen by President Bush to oversee the nation's public school reforms, said the results confirm that schools here have grown complacent, and that a new law tying federal spending to school performance will help. Other countries, he said, are moving ahead while the United States remains "mired in internal education politics and mediocrity."

"I don't think we've come to grips with the urgency of this situation," he said.

But other education advocates said international spending comparisons can be misleading, and they contend the federal government is shortchanging schools just as academic expectations soar.

The United States spent $10,240 per student from elementary school through college in 2000, according to the report. Average spending among more than 25 nations was $6,361. The range stretched from less than $3,000 per student in Turkey, Mexico, the Slovak Republic and Poland to more than $8,000 per student in Denmark, Norway, Austria and Switzerland.

Australia, Finland, Ireland, Korea and the United Kingdom are examples of nations that have moderate spending on primary and lower secondary education but high performance by 15-year-olds in key subject areas, the report said.

The United States fared better in reading literacy among fourth-graders, where it finished among the top scorers in 2001. But the declining performance as students grow older should serve as a wake-up call that the nation has two gaps to fill, Paige said: one between it and other countries, and one between top performing and low achieving students here.

American students should be challenged to work harder, said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a research group that advocates for better public schools.

But the nation's investment in education deserves a closer look, Jennings said. Many school districts rely on property taxes, yielding inequities between richer and poorer areas that are masked by overall numbers, he said. And the United States has expectations of its schools that many countries don't, such as sports programs that drive up costs, he said.

"You can't just put dollars in one column and test scores in another column," Jennings said. "Life is more complicated than that."

The United States spent 7 percent of its gross domestic product - the country's total output of goods and services - on education in 2000, the second-highest total among the countries. Within that total, the U.S. share of public spending on education was only average compared with the other countries, but the U.S. private investment in schools was high.

Viewed by level of education, the United States spends the most on higher education for every student and is a leading spender on primary and secondary education, the report says.

Nationwide, states are dealing with the federal No Child Left Behind law requiring them to chart adequate yearly progress - not just for a school's overall population, but for groups such as minorities and students who speak little English. Sanctions grow by the year for schools that receive low-income aid but don't improve enough.

"No other country is imposing such a rigorous requirement on its schools," McGaw said.

Federal education spending has grown by $11 billion since President Bush took office, Paige said, but that includes spending beyond the first 12 grades. Even increased money for elementary and secondary education doesn't cover the law's sweeping expenses, said David Shreve of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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