AS the class of 2005 starts kindergarten this week, the nation has never poured so much money into education.
The United States Education Department's annual back-to-school profile of American schools shows that in the past decade - an era of great national debate over declining educational achievement - public and private spending on education has increased 40 percent, to $445 billion a year. That divides out to $6,300 per public elementary- and secondary-school pupil.
The statistical snapshot, released Wednesday by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), shows clearly the nation's heavy investment in the struggle to reverse its elementary- and secondary-school decline in world rankings. While the data show that the investment has bought more and better-paid teachers, the numbers don't show whether students are getting a better education. (Other studies and test-score results show mixed, but generally low or declining, achievement).
"Our debate about education too often boils down to whether we're spending enough money. We are all in favor of investing more money to make our schools the best in the world, but these numbers remind us that money alone is not the answer for better schools," says Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. "We should spend our money on changing our schools: breaking the mold, higher standards, better tests, getting government off the backs of teachers, and giving families more choices of all schools."
FAMILY choice has been the Bush administration's leading education-reform policy. It promotes higher achievement by creating innovation through free-market competition in school systems, such as allowing education funding to follow children to the schools of their parents' choice.
The NCES report is considered the education community's most comprehensive source on school enrollment, spending, and staffing, says Emily Feistritzer, director of the National Center for Education Information, an independent think tank.
NCES data are largely undisputed, she says. But their meaning is fodder for debate. For example, new NCES data show that record numbers of students graduated from college every year between 1982 and 1992. This sounds less like an achievement, she says, when considering US Labor Department data that show that at least one-fifth of college graduates work in jobs that do not require a college degree. What the new NCES data do not show is that there is a glut of college degrees, "that we need better-educated
people but not necessarily more-educated people," she says.
But overall, say education experts, the data do fairly portray a broad American involvement in education. One in 4 Americans - or 70 million people - is currently involved in education, as a student, teacher, administrator, or support-staff member. Schools employ close to 8 million people, or 6.6 percent of the US civilian work force.
From 1982 to 1992, elementary-school teaching was the fastest growing area of teaching employment, increasing by 21 percent, from 1.4 million in 1982 to 1.7 million this year.
That was a steeper growth rate than the corresponding increase in elementary-school enrollment, explains Emerson Elliott, NCES commissioner of education statistics. Elementary-school enrollment grew 11 percent during the same decade, from 31.3 million students to 34.8 million. The implication, he says, is that there is an intended increase in the teacher-to-pupil ratio.
Growth in total public elementary- and secondary-school enrollment continues to be concentrated in Western states. Enrollment there grew by 14 percent, with an increase of 1.1 million students in the past five years, compared with the next nearest growth area, the South, which had a 700,000 pupil increase.
In the last year, the average annual salary of a public-school teacher increased by 4 percent, to $34,413. The NCES forecasts that this salary will reach $35,800 by the end of this school year.