Every nine seconds a student in America drops out of school, often rendering that young adult unemployable and relegating him or her to a life with few opportunities and necessary skills. This has a real cost not just for one individual, but for his or her family and every taxpayer in the country.

Consider this: High school dropouts are nearly three times more likely to be unemployed than college graduates. Additionally, among those who are employed, they will earn, on average, about $8,000 a year less than high school graduates and $26,500 less than college graduates.

Additionally, two-thirds of the prison population in state, local, and federal prisons are made up of high school dropouts. The nation could save as much as $18.5 billion in annual crime-related costs if the high school male graduation rate increased by just five percent. If the number of dropouts was cut in half, the nation could save $7.3 billion annually in Medicaid savings, $12 billion in heart disease-related savings, $11.9 billion in obesity-related savings, $6.4 billion in alcoholism-related savings, and $8.9 billion in smoking-related savings.

On the other hand, increasing the graduation rate to 90 percent for one year would create more than 65,000 new jobs and boost the economy by nearly $11 billion. And the graduation rate has been increasing over the past several years. Both Mississippi and the United States saw record high four-year graduation rates for the 2014-2015 school year of 78 and 83 percent, respectively.

But what does this mean? More people are graduating from high school, but is the United States lowering the bar rather than improving academic performance? The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development recently reported that American students ranked 25th out of 72 countries when tested on topics in science. A Pew Research study found that American students ranked 38th out of 71 countries when tested in math, reading, and science.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which bills itself as the nation’s report card, found that only 40 percent of fourth-graders, 33 percent of eighth-graders, and 25 percent of 12th-graders are “proficient” or “advanced” in math.

Mississippi has seen some recent progress as it was the only state in the nation to show significant increases in both 4th grade math and reading in 2015 on the NAEP, which arguably offers the best apples-to-apples comparison for student performance across the country. However, Mississippi still generally falls among the bottom five states in all measures as the state performed significantly lower than the National public average in 4th and 8th grade math and science.

In fact, Education Week’s Quality Counts report rated Mississippi as having the worst education system in the country, ranking it 51st in educational quality in 2014; even putting Washington, D.C. ahead of the Magnolia State. It is clear that something is not working and dramatic improvements need to be made. Indeed, the United States has much work to do to catch up with the rest of the world, and Mississippi has much work to do to catch up with the United States.

Is Money The Issue?

When the debate about education woes arises, a large contingent is guaranteed to make one, popular argument: District schools need more money. Many claim that lack of funding is the root of all problems and if schools had more money the results would follow. Yet Mississippi and the United States have been throwing more money at the problem for more than four decades.

In Mississippi, more than 50 cents for every dollar collected in the state’s general fund is spent on public education. In 2015, the state spent over $9,700 per student when including state, local, and federal dollars. This is an uptick from around $8,000 just a few years prior and is part of a larger trend. Adjusted for inflation, spending on education in Mississippi has increased by 54 percent since 1992. This large increase occurred while student enrollment decreased by 3 percent and teacher salaries increased by only 2 percent.

Similar increases have occurred nationwide. Going back to 1970, inflation-adjusted spending on education has increased by 192 percent. However, the scores for 17-year-olds on the Long-Term Trend NAEP Assessments have remained flat. A 2016 report from the United States Department of Education showed that a School Improvement Grants (SIG) program over the past decade pumped $7 billion into education with zero impact on student achievement.

Designed to help failing schools, the SIG provided no academic gains for the students it was intended to help, and failing schools that received multi-year grants ended with results that were no better than similar schools that did not participate in the program. Only the federal government can spend $7 billion with nothing to show for their effort. The country is spending considerably more while showing little in the way of academic progress.

This is an excerpt from School Choice: Unleashing the market in education. It was published in Promoting Prosperity in Mississippi.