America spends tons of money on education even though the final product isn't very impressive. If children are indeed the future, then they're certainly an expensive one: Of the $3.2 trillion in total expenditures for local and state governments in 2012, education accounted for nearly 28 percent, or $869.2 billion, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau. That figure topped government spending in any other sector, almost doubling the second-largest recipient of taxpayer dollars—public welfare.
Local and State Spending by Sector
But while much attention centers on how much schools are spending, it's also worth examining how well it’s being spent. And it's not a new question. A few years ago the New York Times, for example, hosted a debate in its opinion section about the worthiness of education spending.
Meanwhile, audits regularly find wasted funds at the district level, including one last summer that identified more than $2.7 million in misspent technology funding for schools in Fort Worth, Texas. Another audit—this one for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky—resulted in over 200 recommendations for improvement.* The revelations were so damning that the state auditor, Adam Edelen, was quoted blaming the problem on "an unchecked bureaucracy that has become bloated and inefficient at the expense of the classroom." It's undeniable that the burden on taxpayers to foot the bill for education is a heavy one, especially when research shows that the quality of a school district directly correlates with the amount of tax dollars families put into their local economies.