Out on the campaign trail this week, 2020 presidential hopeful Kamala Harris called for less incarceration and more education in a fiery plea. “Let us speak the truth about education. You know, we’re a society that pretends to care about education. [But] not so much the education of other people’s children. Let’s speak that truth” Kamala said to thunderous applause. “Let’s agree that we have failed to put the resources into our public education system and instead we are putting money into a system of mass incarceration.”
The narrative that the reason we aren’t spending more on education is because we’re spending too much on prisons (which usually make up only about 5% of a state’s budget) seems random, but it does make sense in light of Kamala’s past. If Kamala wants to stand a chance in the 2020 field, she’s going to have to do some substantial rebranding in hopes that Democrats forget her past in pushing the same “mass incarceration” policies she’s now railing against.
Harris also says that “this truth” proves that we aren’t interested in investing in the future of our country.
The rhetoric Kamala is embracing doesn’t even make much sense for a whole host of other reasons, the first being that way more money is spent on education than prisons. While some liberals will try to downplay the amount already spent on education by only citing The Department of Education’s budget, the DOE’s budget accounts for only a small sliver of total education spending in America. As everyone paying property taxes is aware, most education spending occurs at the state and local level. Of the $1.1 trillion that all levels of governments spent subsidizing education in 2018, over 10 times as much was spent at the local level alone ($708 billion) than federal. Meanwhile, the annual cost of federal, state, and local incarceration is nearly $90 billion. According to basic math, $90 billion is indeed less than $1.1 trillion.
For some more context on just how much America invests in education – we spend more on the military than the next seven biggest spenders combined – and we still spend more on education than on the military. Even if we include money spent on veterans healthcare and foreign aid, more is still spent on education.
Education Spending and Outcomes Don’t Correlate
Since most education spending is done at the state and local levels, average spending varies by state and locality. If Kamala is right that we can simply spend up performance, we’d expect districts that spend more to perform better. And they do not. A government study from the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance reported no correlation between spending and test scores or graduation rates, and that’s visible in the scatterplot correlating education spending and test scores below:
The Same Trend Holds True Nationally
While there’s no correlation between spending and performance at the state level, there’s also been no national increase in test scores as average education spending per student has sharply increased nationwide over the decades. According to the Cato Institute;
The achievement data come from the Department of Education’s own National Assessment of Educational Progress “Long Term Trends” series, which regularly tests nationally representative samples of U.S. students, drawing from the same pool of questions in use since the tests were first administered around 1970. These are the best data we have on what our kids know by the end of high school and how much it has cost to get them there.
None of this is to say that more spending on education is bad – but it is to say that how efficiently money is used matters. A decent chunk of education spending in some districts has suffered largely due to administrative bloat over the greater half of the past century.
The bigger problem for most schools isn’t the amount of funding, it’s the allocation of funding.
Abolishing all prisons wouldn’t even save enough money to boost total education spending in this country 10%. It looks like Kamala is going to have to find a new scapegoat.