The United States spends only 5.6 percent of its gross domestic product on education, placing it 51st on the United Nations Development Program’s list of 160 countries. Depending on how you view the importance of education (there’s a right answer), this is embarrassing. Cuba spends 12.9 percent of its GDP educating young communists. Denmark spends 8.7 percent of its GDP instructing future tall people, Moldova spends 8.6 percent of GDP on educating its outsized population of children, and Ghana spends 8.1 percent making West Africa great again.
But bemoaning the state of federal funding is actually a waste of time. If you want to get really depressed, scope individual state budgets. Only two states, Alaska and Vermont, spend a larger proportion of their GDPs on education than Syria, which is literally collapsing. And, while education spending is no indication of intelligence or achievement, it is certainly an indication of how much a government prioritizes academics. State policymakers who discover that they put less of a premium on education than Bashar Al-Assad may want to rethink their budgets for 2019.
Here’s a map depicting the percentage of GDP that each state spends on education, along with the country that most closely matches its educational priorities.
A few notes. First of all, the most significant weakness of this map is that the data does not all come from the same year. The best available state education spending data was from 2015, the most easily accessible data on state GDPs was from 2016, and the UN last updated its assessment of public education expenditures by country in 2012. But now, in 2018, it’s certainly possible that some countries and states in this map have changed their spending habits. The message, however, is no less compelling. If 2016 Arkansas couldn’t do better than 2012 Kuwait, that’s a problem—even if, as of 2018, Kuwait and Arkansas are in fact both doing better.
One strength of this map’s color coding is that it dispels the sort of superior thinking that is endemic in America. Alaskans may be offended to discover that they spend as much of their GDP on education as Ukrainians. But the truth is that Ukraine invests quite a bit in education, and ranks just below the United States in overall education spending according to the United Nations. Some may consider it unflattering to compare their educational priorities to that of Niger, Algeria, or Paraguay. But that’s only because they don’t know much about education in these three countries—all of which rank quite high on the UN list, given their GDPs.
Meanwhile, the take-home message is that states need to spend more of tax dollars on education. Although the issue has long been contested, modern studies have demonstrated that education spending is linked to academic success and that this, in turn, boosts long-term income. New Yorkers, your state spends as much on education as the Gambia, where 75 percent of the population depends on crops and livestock to get by. That makes no sense at all. If we keep on investing the bare minimum in education—that’s exactly what we’ll get back in revenue.