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By Dan Lips
Here is a question for President Obama's next press conference: How much taxpayer funding for public schools would be enough to improve American education?
Campaigning for the $800 billion "stimulus" legislation in Florida, President Obama criticized those who are questioning the wisdom of large spending increases on social programs like education:
"Now, of course, there are some critics--always critics--who say we can't afford to take on these priorities, but we have postponed and neglected them for too long. And because we have ... our schools still fail too many of our children."
For better or worse, we may soon find out once and for all whether a lack of funding is the reason why too many children fail to receive a quality education in America's schools. Congressional leaders are finalizing the details on the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act"--legislation that will include as much as $140 billion in new funding for federal education programs.
Although this week's Senate compromise agreement reduced the amount of education funding in the bill, the package still includes $79 billion in education spending. With House leaders likely to push for restoring funding, it's a safe bet that the final package will include more funding for education than the Department of Education's entire annual outlays ($73 billion in 2007).
Unfortunately, experience shows that, whether Congress spends $80 billion or $140 billion, millions of kids will continue to pass through the nation's public schools without receiving a quality education.
Let's take a look at the evidence: Since the 1970s, federal per-student expenditures have tripled (after adjusting for inflation), but long-term test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress remain flat.
Today, American taxpayers are spending, on average, more than $9,000 per student for all children in public schools--approximately 50 percent more than was spent 20 years ago. But, again, national measures of student outcomes like test scores and graduation rates show little progress since the 1980s.
Just look at President Obama's hometown of Chicago. Public schools in the Windy City spend $9,100 per student, according to SchoolDataDirect.org. This means that a first-grader in Chicago's public schools today can expect to have more than $100,000 invested in his or her education by the end of high school.
Unfortunately, statistics suggest that a youngster in Chicago's public schools has a 50-50 chance of dropping out before earning a high school degree. A recent report published by the America's Promise Alliance found that the city's high school graduation rate was only 51.5 percent.
The sad truth is that "investing in public education" has been a government priority for decades. But generations of children have been allowed to slip through a system without acquiring the most basic skills.
Instead of simply funding more of the same, the time has come to ask some tough questions. Why do public charter schools like KIPP Academy succeed in teaching low-income children while many traditional public schools do not? Why are test scores of minority children rising in reform-minded states like Florida and stagnating in other states? Why are some school teachers effective and others not?
Promising more funding may be easier than answering these tough questions. But in an era of ballooning deficits and declining tax revenues, policymakers may soon recognize that simply increasing government spending is no longer a viable strategy for improving education. What will they do then?
Dan Lips is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Heritage Foundation, www.Heritage.org.