We're Doomed! Doomed!

Neal McCluskey complains that "Federal spending on elementary and secondary education leapt from $43.8 billion in FY 2000 to $68.0 billion in FY 2005, a 55 percent increase, and NCLB imposed a whole new strategy of unprecedented federal control onto the schools. Yet, somehow, nothing changed." Why control for inflation or population growth -- after all, raw aggregates are just as accurate useless in this context. What's more, the story McCluskey links to to prove that "nothing changed" actually said that under No Child Left Behind "The 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a battery of reading and math tests administered to thousands of students in every state, showed some rising scores for all ethnic groups, and the black-white score gap narrowed in a statistically significant way for fourth-grade math. But on fourth-grade reading, and on eighth-grade reading and math, the black-white and Hispanic-white gaps were statistically unchanged from the early 1990s."

So it's less that "nothing happened" than that very minor progress was made toward narrowing the racial achievement gap and that this occurred in the context of generally rising scores. The achievement gap, in other words, would have narrowed were it not for the fact that white kids, inconveniently, also improved their performance at the same time African-American and Latino kids did. Since it's not really viable, politically (or ethically?), to deliberately retard efforts to educate white kids, it's intrinsically difficult to close achievement gaps since the sort of people who were already doing well might always get better. Nevertheless, getting better overall educational outcomes in exchange for higher overall education spending is not much of a damning condemnation of liberal demands for more resources.

Last, no word on aggregate education spending is complete without noting that primary school teaching doesn't benefit from many technology-driven productivity gains since it intrinsically involves high levels of personal supervision. As a result, we should expect education spending to need to increase in real per capita terms over time merely to maintain the same quality level.