During the Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Michigan, Hillary Clinton used a question about teachers’ unions to blame the state of the education system on a lack of funding. When asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper if “unions protect bad teachers,” Clinton replied in part:A lot of what has happened—and honestly it really pains me—a lot of people have been blaming and scapegoating teachers because they don’t want to put the money into the school system that deserve the support that comes from the government doing its job.
The audience applauded when Clinton said this, but her claim clashes with numerous facts about the U.S. public education system and its costs and outcomes compared to other nations, private schools, and U.S. public schools of the past.
According to the latest Department of Education data, governments in the U.S. spend an average of $12,401 for every student enrolled in K-12 public schools. Adjusted for inflation, this figure has risen by 21 times since 1919, and it omits three significant categories of education expenses:
- State government administration.
- Unfunded pension liabilities for government employees.
- Post-employment non-pension benefits (like health insurance).
Recent national polls reveal that Americans greatly underestimate how much money is spent on public schools. In May and June of 2015, a poll commissioned by the journal Education Next and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University found that the average adult believes their local public schools spend $6,307 per student. This is roughly half of the actual amount.