Newspaper column: Why education spending should be cut

Teachers are walking out of classrooms in Colorado and Arizona, demanding higher salaries and more education funding. Lawmakers are rushing to meet their demands.

Here in Nevada all the candidates for governor are kowtowing to the demand for more education funding.

Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt has declared, “We must continue to move forward, not backward, in the areas where we’ve made great strides. In particular, Nevada policymakers have implemented a series of programs designed to address a critical area — improving early literacy. I’ll continue to champion these promising new programs. I pledge that under my leadership, these programs and our entire public education system will be properly funded — we will never go backwards from our current levels of education spending. I repeat: I will not scale back public education funding.”

His Republican opponent Treasurer Dan Schwartz has said he wants to find a way to wrest the $750 million in tax money earmarked for a Raiders football stadium and redirect it to fund education.

Democratic candidates and currently Clark County Commissioners Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani have both called for more education spending.

“Every child in Nevada deserves the opportunity to succeed and that starts with strong public schools,” Sisolak states on his campaign website. “Steve supports investing in Nevada schools so they have the resources to provide a safe and effective learning environment for all of our kids. He believes that in order to strengthen our schools we need to raise teacher salaries and lower classroom sizes.”

On her website Giunchigliani declares, “Every Nevada child deserves an opportunity to get a quality public education, regardless of their zip code, parents’ salary or ethnicity. As a public school special education teacher for 30 years, I know the difference a quality public education can make in a child’s life. But too many of our kids are in underperforming schools and we’ve failed to bring urgency to this issue. One of my top priorities as governor will be to fix the school funding formula. We need to increase educators’ salaries and reduce class sizes.”

Recently Clark County School Board members held a press conference calling on the governor to call a special session of the Legislature in order to raise taxes to increase education spending. Board member Carolyn Edwards was quoted by the press as saying, “We need to be able to pay our teachers and our employees the raises they deserve.”

Juxtapose that quote against the fact that in January Education Week magazine’s annual “Quality Counts” survey of state-by-state K-12 education ranked Nevada 51st among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Only 31 percent of Nevada fourth graders are proficient in math and reading. The raises they deserve?

Pardon us for allowing a heretic to sound a sour note in the choir, but George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan has just published a book that — gasp! — says education funding should be cut, because the vast majority of it is wasted. The book is called “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.”

Caplan estimates that our government agencies alone spend $1.1 trillion in tax money a year on education. That is $3,600 for every person in the country, not every student, every person. He estimates that half of the money doesn’t buy our students any enhanced skills, but merely something he calls “signaling.”

Caplan contends that a high school or college diploma does not mean someone has learned much of anything worthwhile — other than rudimentary literacy and numeracy — but instead signals to potential employers that one is capable of spending long hours doing stultifying menial tasks and conforming to expectations.

To buoy his claims about the inadequacy of the American education system, Caplan cites the General Social Survey of adults that asked 12 elementary true-false science questions. Only 60 percent could answer correctly, when 50 percent should be possible by merely guessing.

“Accounting for guessing, the public’s scientific illiteracy is astonishing,” Caplan writes. “Barely half of American adults known the Earth goes around the sun. Only 32% know atoms are bigger than electrons. Just 14% know that antibiotics don’t kill viruses. Knowledge of evolution barely exceeds zero; respondents would have done better flipping a coin.”

Perhaps there are better things on which we could spend a half a trillion dollars a year.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.


33 comments on “Newspaper column: Why education spending should be cut

  1. bc says:

    I believe that Caplan is wrong and while a large share of folks are not all that literate in science, I question the statistics listed here.

    In my career I have dealt with folks of varying degrees of education and while I believe that intelligence is not necessarily a function of education. I have known some very sharp folks who were not educated, but education can increase the effectiveness and the ability to get things done. Education can also help to teach folks how to think clearly and strengthen the intelligence already present. For some occupations, an education is essential; medicine, finance and engineering comes to mind, For others, the ability to read, perform basic math and algebra and to write or speak words in complete sentences is important.

    My father was a truck and heavy equipment mechanic in Vegas. As a young man he had aspirations to be an engineer but after a couple of years of college and a family to support he stayed in the trades with only an Associates in Math. I asked him once if he found what he learned in college helpful as a mechanic and he told me that he used his education every single day of his career. He believed that an education would open your mind and he told me that as I went through school I would realize that I had been living with blinders, only seeing a small portion of what was around me and as I progressed I would see the blinders drop away from my eyes. I believe he was correct.

    Teachers in CCSD start at about $41k and top out at about $91k. Here in Chicago CPS starts a teacher at about $53k and tops out at about $98k per year. Some of the burbs pay quite a bit more, but we have the taxes that go with that.

    A new engineer starts at $60-75k or so per year, more for some specialties and tops out at whatever their capabilities warrant. Is a teacher worth as much on the market as an engineer? Supply and demand would say no and I would agree. But in the end you do get what you pay for and with this tight labor market CCSD will be scraping the very bottom of the barrel if they are not careful.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Just like a minion of the brothers evil to suggest that, now that they have theirs (public education and the benefits of a society where others shared that benefit) that NOW, no one gets one. The old “I’ve got mine, and now I’m out to get yours” theory of life.

    Sure, others sacrificed, while they benefited, so that Caplan and the rest of the Koch minions sitting at bought and paid for George Mason University could say “lets shut the door” on the rest of the country because…”I’ve got mine”.

    Funny how most of the people, that believe there is any sense to what these guys say, have all rested on the shoulders of people who sacrificed for their lives, but now they feel no obligation to give to the next generation, what they benefited from.


  3. The opposite is true. The author argues the previous generations squandered trillions on a wasteful education system that did not produce what it promised and now future generations should save time and money by cutting spending on material that does not really educate.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Well he either got or didn’t get an education funded by the public, and because its extremely likely that he did, whatever he says now about how that money was spent is ungrateful at best. Like a kid given an ice cream cone complaining that it wasn’t healthy….after he ate it.

    And these faux “institutes of higher learning” set up by the brothers evil for only the intent of lowering their own taxes (cause they just can’t pile it high enough already can they? Poor guys) pumping out this dribble. There ought to be a law.

  5. bc says:

    You propose to reduce money for education, what do you propose to reduce? Teacher pay? $41k for a college graduate is not a lot as is it. Look at the Ed Shed central office? Likely some could be saved there, but the majority of money is spent at the school level.

    What is it you want to see other than money for private schools? I’ve read this blog for years and for all the whining about the schools in Nevada I have never seen any real proposals on how to fix this or really what is wrong.

  6. competition often finds a more efficient way.

  7. bc says:

    I am fine with competition, public education has competition with private schools and home schools and CCSD has a robust Charter school program now. But you called for a reduction in education spending, where do you propose those reductions take place.

  8. subjects that do nothing to add life and job skills.

  9. Rincon says:

    Glad to see you agree with me Thomas, that the average American knows precious little about science (and is therefore in a poor position to decide on the fine points of global warming), but do you really think the answer is to just not spend more money? Perhaps spending money more effectively is reasonable, but to merely keep pay low so as to continue attracting the dregs of our universities to the profession?

    Besides, aren’t teacher engaging in good old fashioned capitalism? They are advertising by protesting and banding together to get a better deal for themselves. Doesn’t sound that much different from how Trump handled his real estate investments.

  10. Steve says:

    In judging the quality of public education he surveys adults?
    One of the first questions asked of people just out of school is:
    “What is the first thing to go after graduating high school?”
    The answer

    To gauge the quality of lesson materials learned, shouldn’t he have surveyed high schoolers nearing the end of their time in public school?

    Note: I used spell check on this post extensively. (I bet there are several grammar errors)

  11. It’s big book. He did that, too.

  12. Bill Shuster says:

    NEVADA’s education system is the worst in the nation, period! Everyone wants to throw more money at the problem. Money will not cure a “top heavy, unionized, failed education system!

    This is one of the steps towards socialism and has grown well in NV, dumbing down of our youth will make them followers, not leaders. This will suck up more money from the tax payers to keep them happy with their “GOVERNMENT HANDOUTS” without ever having to lift a finger. This will kill the “middle class” which is what socialism believes in and in turn make the entire country socialist!

    This has been planned since the late 1950’s and is almost all the way their now and yes, I blame the education systems and the teachers for the regular, systematic ruining of the inelegance of our children and grand children!


  13. Reward success, not failure.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Bumper sticker philosophies; pablum for the masses.

    The history of public education in this country is an unmitigated success. The engine that has driven this country from where it was to where it is.

    Held back only because of the failure to acknowledge the contribution it has made by those shortsighted, self interested types that demand from it, what they never demand from any other contributor to the national interest.

    All so that a few can pile a few more dollars on their stacks.

  15. Steve says:

    The book @ 416 pages is hardly a “Bumper sticker philosophy”. Try reading a few honest reviews.

  16. Rincon says:

    I believe the bumper sticker philosophy Anonymous refers to is that of Mr. Shuster. I have to agree that his apparent plan of merely starving the schools of money and his ranting about SOCIALISM indeed appear to be bumper sticker philosophies. Very simple, and more gut reflex than philosophy. Its conspiracy theory underpinnings don’t enhance its credibility.

    Please note that I said APPEARED. It’s certainly possible that Mr. Shuster is a deep thinker with much worthwhile to say. It just isn’t apparent to me from his post.

  17. Bill Shuster says:

    Thank you!
    Call it what you will, I have seen SOCIALISM grow in this country since the mid 50’s in every part of the country from Main to CA. The history of education is blatantly evident here in NV and if ” Anonymous” can’t see it, he or she is the problem and as by being Anonymous he and or she is showing it yet wont admit it. I never said “starving” schools, I said doing better with the money they are wasting and overpaying for lack of service! Reward where their is success and remove and replace those that don’t measure up!

    I’ll stick with my “bumper sticker philosophy” It makes more truthful sense than theirs.When I graduated High School in 1960, my quality, depth and breadth of education was a higher standard than most who now graduate a 4 year socialist college. Throwing more money at a failed business attempt will never make it better. Our government has tried this for years and until lately, with a “business” minded President, there hasn’t been any difference in the policies and outcomes.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Mr. Shuster just to clarify, my reference was to Thomas’ bumper sticker philosophy and didn’t relate to anything you said.

    I’d say I was sorry about the confusion but since it may have furthered the conversation here I can’t really be sorry.

  19. Rincon says:

    I can understand the perception that schools in this country are doing a lousy job, and the addition of all kinds of extraneous personnel seems egregious to me too. Nevertheless, we cannot claim that today’s students are more poorly educated than those of the past unless we can explain the Flynn effect.

    When today’s students take the same IQ tests that those of previous generations had taken, they score dramatically higher than their ancestors. Although things like better nutrition may be the explanation, it seems unlikely that students educated as badly as Bill is intimating would show steadily increasing IQ tests over the decades.

    It appears to be a fact that today’s students are sharper than those of 1960.

  20. Bill Shuster says:

    Flynn Effect! If they change the standards every three to 5 years one can make any test show whatever they want it to be. I can teach a test, and get 100% of any group to pass that test. Numbers don’t lie but if you go to any mall, even a college campus and ask the same question of 10 different youth you will see how our education system has been dumbed down. “Watter’s world” is a good example of what our educational system is turning out now.

    I will stick with my “bumper sticker mentality and repeat: “Reward where their is success and remove and replace those that don’t measure up!” Socialism is winning and if we don’t correct it now, we are doomed to become a dumb 3rd world country!

  21. Rincon says:

    Wow, you really think scientists are stupid, don’t you? Let me quote from the article: “However, when the new test subjects take the older tests, in almost every case their average scores are significantly above 100.” Same exact tests. This isn’t rocket science. To prove the Flynn effect, all they had to do was give today’s kids the old tests. The teachers certainly weren’t teaching to a test that was 50 years old. In theory, the kids from the past had the edge if teachers were indeed teaching to the tests.

    Please don’t stick to your “bumper sticker mentality” as you promise to do. Doctors did that for decades as they did surgery with dirty hands and used leeches to treat all kinds of disease. Systematic analysis beats common sense just about every time. Remember when common sense told us that cigarette smoking was safe?

  22. Anonymous says:


    I had a “discussion” years ago with Thomas’ compatriot at the old RJ “Vin Suprynowitz” where after he wrote some nonsense about “government schools” or whatever he calls them, I told him (with only a small grain of salt) that I’d put the worst F student in the country up against the barefooted, gun totting, redneck hayseed that he was lauding from the early days of this country’s “pre-public school education” days and that they’d be more informed and better educated BECAUSE they had the opportunity to attend those government schools.

    Got a nice response too (not from Vin because he never deemed any comments in the old RJ fit to respond to unlike Thomas) as I recall.

  23. bc says:

    So you would like to reduce school funding by cutting classes that do not add to job and life skills.

    So lets define what would be essential.

    Math, think we would agree.
    History, an old newspaperman like yourself would agree that the study of history is essential to democracy
    Science classes such as Chemistry, Biology, Physics, etc. Think we would agree as well
    English, again I would believe that an old newspaperman would think that the ability to read and understand what was read along with the ability to string words together would be important
    Civics and Government. again I think we would agree.
    Physical Education. I believe this is important, goes to life skills
    Vocational Classes. The auto shop class I had was very helpful to me, my younger brother learned his trade at Vo Tech there in Vegas. Need more kids to enter the trades, good living for the right folks and does not include college bills
    Arts/Music. Some may think this is not important, perhaps you are one of those. My kids all went through band and two played in college. A good experience for all of them, learned the value of practice and being a part of a bigger whole. I think worth the time
    Foreign languages. The world is getting smaller every day, those who can communicate in another language will be ahead of the game.

    So Thomas, where do we cut? Which classes do we do away with to save all this money you want to save?

  24. History may be important for the citizen but not for the worker, nor civics, arts, foreign language, advanced math, physical ed.

  25. Bill says:

    IMHO, the problem lies in the fact that “education” has become a vast bureaucratic machine that spends the majority of time and effort in perpetuating and growing the inefficient bureaucratic monopoly called “public education”. I was a product of a one room school without running water, indoor bathrooms, electricity, heating system other than a wood burning stove and was able to achieve a measure of success before I ever went to college. When I did finally go to college, it was solely for the purposes of obtaining an undergraduate degree so that I could then go to a graduate school that was a precondition to graduate school. One of the wealthiest and smartest men I ever had the pleasure of knowing was a North Dakota farm boy who never graduated from the 8th grade. He founded and successfully ran a multi-million dollar business that employed hundreds of men and women. Public education is an expensive factory that turns out a largely deficient product. Check and see how many universities are required to provide remedial teaching to incoming students who are unable to even write a coherent sentence.

  26. Rincon says:

    I think we all agree that public and private schooling in this country are deficient, but simply cutting funding is a chain saw rather than a scalpel. I agree with Thomas that schools (public and private) teach lots of stuff that students don’t need, such as Thomas’ example of calculus. I am surprised by his implication that history need not be taught, although the average citizen appears to know little about history even when they’ve had the requisite education.

    I also agree with Thomas that a primary education should equip graduates with reasonably universal job skills along with the knowledge and skills to function as an adult in society. I would like to see students finish their required courses by age 16. After that, they should embark on an educational path towards a career. This would give them time for the common false starts, so that they don’t suddenly realize they picked the wrong career path when they have a spouse and child.

    But how can you properly educate someone by age 16 when we aren’t doing a good job by age 18?
    Simple: Cut the fat from the curriculum. Thomas is correct. Schools teach all kinds of meaningless tripe, which needs to be eliminated. Have any of us really made use of the geometry proofs we were taught, or the now dormant ability to convert cosines to secants? And calculus? Give me a break. I know engineers that don’t remember calculus. I could make a long list of similar useless material I was taught.

    So how to cut the curriculum? Also simple: Stop allowing academics to formulate curricula on their own. People in other professions would contribute some very valuable judgement, if they were consulted.

    I do have one more complaint about teaching: 90% shouldn’t be an A grade and 80% shouldn’t be a B, etc. Either we are passing students who don’t know their material very well, and/or we are filling the courses with so much information that the vast majority can’t remember it all. In real life, 90% is a failing grade. Ask any airline pilot or doctor if a 90% success rate is adequate in his/her job. Teach less, but make sure they know it and make tests about the important stuff, not the minutia.

  27. bc says:

    Thomas and Rincon,
    So what is the difference between “Worker” and “Citizen”? Does it depend on who your parents are? My old man was a truck mechanic so I should be an uneducated worker instead of the engineer I became? Who makes that choice, the State? Someone has to make that choice because to follow the path that you have stated it must be done early, 8th grade tops.

    Civics is not important? History? How can someone vote and try to do so with some element of intelligence or knowledge of how the country was founded or are you saying that the “workers” should not be given the vote?

    High school students don’t need to study calculus, I agree. I did not take calculus until I was at UNR. But the key word is need. My middle son took calculus in high school, he is studying to be an engineer and the extra year of higher math helped him. My daughter who looks to be settling on education and my oldest who is an MD did not study calculus in high school, neither felt the need. Key point there is most do not study calculus and no, pre-calc is not calculus.

    Rincon, you state that required courses should be completed by age 16 then you start to move to a career. I agree, and to a large part that is what happens now. By the time my kids were 16 they knew enough to function in society but they were moving to college prep courses as all three knew that is where they would be headed. Other kids started learning trades. Took a tour of their high school and saw a functioning auto shop, carpenter shop, body shop, computer programming lab and electronics lab among other trades. Sounds like this is what you are asking for. I just took a tour of a local community college today, my company is supporting their truck mechanic training program there and also taking four assembly line workers and training them to be truck mechanics with the help of this college, something we have done in the past and will continue to do so.

    Bill, so you went to a one room school house. You would be happy to know that up in Elko County there are still some one room school houses. Someone who was once very important to me attended a very small school in Elko County, I was surprised that the education offerings were so poor. Thomas would agree with it because the school knew that the students were all going to work in the mines anyway so why waste their time with learning.

    Not everyone needs to study Calculus, but some do. Not everyone needs to study biology, chemistry, physics or auto shop, but some do. In watching my three go through the system in several different school districts in multiple states, I did not see a lot of wasted class time. I agree that the important parts of geometry could be condensed into a couple of weeks rather than a full year and I might quibble with a few other issues as well, but overall I did not feel that the education system failed my kids or their friends.

    Thomas, I have been reading your columns and your blog for 20 years. When I read your response the first thing I thought was from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs. Truly surprised me there.

  28. Certainly not my intent. My intent was to point out that throwing tax money at education can be wasteful. Not everyone needs or wants the same “education.” Customize the conveying of skills to the needs and wants of the individual. As far as the value of civics and history to “citizens,” just look at what most have not retained.

  29. Rincon says:

    I think the three of us mostly agree. bc, it’s encouraging that the students in your school system are already steering for careers around the time they turn sixteen. The Flynn effect also suggests that education has been improving over the years. I must confess that my exposure to the school system has been minimal for several decades. I’m sure a lot has changed. On that basis, my opinions are not firm and you have both influenced them. That’s what discussion is all about.

  30. bc says:

    Thanks Rincon. I also think we agree more than we thought.
    That is truly what discussion is for which is why I read this blog.

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