How much does the United States spend on education compared with other industrialized nations? The question - sensitive at a time when critics charge that US schools are failing to keep America competitive - has received different answers. Some federal officials and other experts claim that US education spending is very high and is not the cause of poor performance in schools.

Other statisticians say the US devotes a smaller share of its resources to education - particularly at the K-12 levels (kindergarten through 12th grade) - than do most industrialized nations. Currency exchange-rates are just one of the issues that make comparisons tricky.

A new study by Rati Ram, a professor of economics at Illinois State University in Normal, Ill., attempts to put the issues in clearer statistical light. He studied data for 17 industrialized nations in 1985 and 1975.

The US ranked fourth in per-pupil K-12 spending among the 17 countries in 1985, and second in 1975. For both years, Switzerland topped the list, followed in 1985 by Sweden, Canada, the US, and Denmark. Britain was ninth, France 11th, West Germany 14th, and Japan 15th. West Germany and Japan also ranked below the US in 1975, with 12th and 14th places, respectively.

The study also attempted to compare actual spending with a "predicted" level based on a formula that related a nation's per-capita gross domestic product to per-pupil spending.

Here, per-pupil K-12 spending in the US was almost exactly at its predicted level in 1975, but in 1985 was about 12 percent below that year's predicted level. In 1985 Japan, West Germany, and New Zealand were the only nations among the 17 studied to rank below the US. Scandinavian nations, Switzerland, and Britain exceeded predicted levels.

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