Another sign more money doesn’t mean better results

The latest international education rankings are out, and America is near the top.

Oh, not in math, reading or science test scores. Not even close. But when it comes to spending money on schools, watch out. Hardly anyone beats us.

Only four nations spent more than the United States on students between the ages of 6 and 15. But among the 34 members of the club of industrialized nations called the OECD, American students came in just 27th in math, 17th in reading and 20th in science.

In math, we trailed not only 26 other developed countries, but also places such as Vietnam and Russia.

Estonia and Poland, which spent about half as much as we did (adjusted for cost of living), cleaned our clocks in all three subjects.

In fact, there’s virtually no way to slice the available spending data that shows anything resembling a correlation with achievement on the test known as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA):

  • The 10 highest-spending nations achieved above-average scores in math, reading or science less than half the time and were below average almost a third of the time.
  • On average, the 10 highest-performing countries devoted about $7 to education for every $10 we did.
  • Increasing education spending didn't necessarily help, either. Among the 10 nations whose per-pupil spending rose the fastest between 2003 and 2012, five saw statistically significant improvement on at least one test — but six saw a statistically significant decrease. (Ireland had one of each.)

But despite all this, and the fact Georgia consistently ranks higher nationally for school spending than for school achievement, expect to hear more and more calls to devote more and more money to education.

State Sen. Jason Carter, D-Atlanta, spoke for less than a minute while officially announcing his gubernatorial bid, but during that time he hit on what looks to be a central theme of his campaign:

“Georgia at its best has an education system that’s invested in. We don’t cut a billion dollars from our classrooms.”

The GOP gubernatorial primary will also feature such a message. State schools superintendent John Barge, who is challenging incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal, has spent more than a year highlighting the state’s “austerity cuts” to its education budget.

Education is one of the three “E’s” on which Barge is campaigning, along with the economy and ethics. But on his campaign website, at least, his “Vision for the E3 Revolution” means spending more money on schools.

Yet these budgetary exhortations come without any evidence the money would yield results.

Somewhat awkwardly, Barge’s online railing against austerity cuts comes right after he brags that Georgia has steadily improved its high school graduation rate and in 2012 was “the only state in the nation to improve on every one of” the exams known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. All this, despite what he has described as a decade-long starvation of k-12 schools.

The point is not that we shouldn’t invest in education. Some of Georgia’s best economic success stories over the years — Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Aflac, Shaw Industries, Georgia-Pacific, the Turner networks — were started in Georgia. The entrepreneurs and workers of the future will be even more likely to need a good education to have a shot at success.

And we must develop more homegrown industry, because we can’t afford to lure all our big new employers with tax breaks. Even if we could afford it, those companies looking to relocate or build a new facility typically want to be near good local schools.

But it’s long past time to stop measuring how much we care about education by how much money we spend on it. Pouring more money into a faulty model, whether a failing k-12 school or Medicaid, won’t change the fact the model is faulty.

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