Jeb Bush has repeatedly — and falsely — claimed that the United States spends “more per student than any country in the world.” Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland all spend more than the U.S. on elementary and secondary education.
The former Florida governor most recently made this claim at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s annual Road to Majority Conference, held on June 14 in Washington, D.C. At the conference, Bush spoke about the need to create sustainable economic growth and cited education as the “greatest challenge our country faces.”
Bush, June 14: To me the greatest challenge our country faces is that 40 percent of our kids — truly, truly, honestly — 40 percent of our kids are college or career ready. And we spend more per student than any country in the world. That is not acceptable. Too many young people now have shattered dreams because they don’t have the skills to be successful.
Bush made a similar claim in an earlier interview with Newsmax TV (about 19 minutes into the video):
Bush, March 31: We have a third of our kids that don’t make it through the system, even though we spend more per student than any country in the world. And a lot of students could be doing college-level work by the time they’ve graduated from high school but in effect they’re held back because we have this adult-centered homogenized learning model.
We asked Bush spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof for information that would support the governor’s claim that the U.S. has the highest per-student expenditure rate. But the information she provided contradicted his claim.
Emhof referred us to a George Washington University chart, below, that clearly shows the expenditure per-student rate was higher in Luxembourg and Switzerland. Luxembourg, at $16,909, is 54 percent higher than the U.S. rate of $10,995.
The George Washington University chart is not complete. A footnote says the chart was based on Table A-22-1 in a 2012 Department of Education report (page 200), which shows that Norway, too, spent more per student on “elementary and secondary” education than the United States.
The DOE report is based on Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development data — specifically from its 2011 Education at a Glance report, which contains 2008 spending data on elementary and secondary education for 32 countries. (It is also worth noting that the DOE report provides spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product. By that measure, 10 of the 32 countries spent more on elementary and secondary education. The U.S. spent 4.1 percent of the nation’s economy on elementary and secondary education; the OECD average was 3.8 percent.)
The most current OECD report — the 2012 report with 2009 data — shows similar results. The U.S. spent less per student on “primary education” than Denmark, Luxembourg and Norway, and less per student than Austria, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland on “all secondary education.” (See Table B1.1a.) That report also shows that the U.S. ranked behind Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland on per-student spending for “primary, secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary education.” (See Table B1.2.)
The OECD report does show the U.S. spends much more than any nation on “all tertiary education” — such as community colleges and universities — but Bush was clearly talking about elementary and secondary education, since his remarks were in the context of students not being ready for college.
Bush’s spokeswoman also referred us to a University of Southern California chart that shows the U.S. spends more per student than 11 other countries. But Bush said “any country in the world,” not just some or even most countries. The USC chart does not show, for example, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland — which outspent the U.S. in primary and secondary education in 2008 and 2009, as we’ve already noted.
This isn’t the first time that we fact checked a politician’s statement regarding the cost of educating U.S. schoolchildren. In 2010, we reviewed a similar claim by then-Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who, like Bush, said the U.S. spent “more per student than any other country in the world.” It was wrong then, and it’s still wrong.
Update, June 25: We updated this post to add a video excerpt of Bush’s remarks on education.
– Rachel Finkel, with Eugene Kiely