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School finance: Issues to consider

The level of spending per pupil at your school and district is important to consider when evaluating your school.

By GreatSchools Staff

State governments as a whole spend more than $500 billion a year on K-12 schools in the United States, according to a recent report from the National Working Group on Funding Student Learning, making education the largest expenditure in most state budgets.

Yet, the report notes, it's difficult to figure out where all this money goes and how the amount spent contributes to student achievement. The report recommends overhauling school finance systems so that the resources can be better spent supporting the ambitious learning goals that the general public demands.

With the current downturn in the economy, school districts across the country are getting hit hard. Most school districts depend on state and local tax revenue, so when state and local budgets take a hit, so do schools. In addition, some school districts have been affected by problems in the financial sector. From Wisconsin to California, school districts have lost money because of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and investment deals gone sour. These financial losses will mean larger class sizes, and cutbacks in programs, supplies and school maintenance projects.

School district spending data on GreatSchools school profiles, which comes from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), gives you information on the average amount of money spent per student in your district. You'll find this information under the School Environment tab on the school profile.

What the data means

School finance data gives you an indication of how much money is spent per student in your district, and how this amount compares to the state average.

In most school and district budgets throughout the country, the lion's share of the funding goes to instruction and instructional-related services, i.e., teacher and staff salaries.

What the categories mean

  • Instructional expenditures include costs related to teachers instructing students. This percentage includes teacher salaries, supplies such as textbooks, and purchased instructional services, libraries, curriculum development and training for staff and teachers.
  • Student and staff support includes the percentage of funds spent on the cost of health, psychological, guidance and therapy departments at a school. Staff support includes the cost of school libraries, media centers and training.
  • Administration costs includes expenditures for the administration of both schools and school districts. This would include expenditures on the board of education, the office of the principal, graduation expenses, as well as central office expenses such as budgeting, payroll, purchasing, planning and research.
  • The "other" category includes all other types of expenditures. Examples of costs in this category include operations (utilities, maintenance and security), food service, and the salaries of support staff such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

What to look for

  • Compare what your school or district spends to the state average. If your school or district spends less than the state average, you'll want to dig deeper to find out why. When comparing averages for school-level expenditures, note that certain factors may affect comparisons, such as the experience level of teachers and administrators, the types of instructional programs offered and student characteristics. If you have questions or concerns, ask your school principal or school superintendent.
  • Consider the breakdown of expenses (instructional, student and staff expenditures, administrative and other) and compare these to the state average. If the school is spending less on instruction, for example, than the state average, that's a red flag. You'll want to ask your principal or superintendent why.
  • Find out how much your state spends on average to educate students, and compare that with the national average. The United States Census Bureau reported in 2006 (based on state-based data from 2004) that the national average was $8,287 per student per year. New Jersey was the highest with $12,981, while the state that spent the least was Utah at $5,008. If you are concerned about the level of spending on education in your state as compared to others, contact your state legislator and/or join with other parents to lobby for increased funding.

Comments from readers

"Why can't I get a disclosure regarding the average cost to the NYC department of education for each student lunch? Not the cost each student pays, not the cost of discarding garbage(styrofoam trays); the cost the Department of education pays for the lunch?!Who are the vendors? How much do they charge the NYC department of education? NOT THE STUDENTS!!! "
"If I were not an educator, I would read this and think that the more money a school spends, the better education students receive. Such is not the case. This is an interesting yet misleading article. Take it with a grain of salt. If you want to know how your school is doing, don't look at how much money it spends; rather, look at student performance and talk to a variety of parents. "
"There should be more money to be donated to the Instrumental program in this school. In fact, most teachers do not even want to use the expensive SmartBoards that the school provides to them."
"Financial literacy is important for the development of our society. Having this information helps families better understand the resources and their usage as it pertains to their childs' school. At Operation HOPE/Banking on Our Future we are committed to Financial Literacy education and empowerment. We offer FREE Financial Literacy education for Students."
"Lobby for increased funding? Is there no end? There is a negative inverse relationship between expenditures and quality of student. No accountability no money."
"Do not confuse education for our young with feeding them or providing 'administrators' ! for the system. Who of you has ever had an administrator who got your job done? On the other hand, have you ever had a good or even life-changing teacher? I don't believe those first answers exceed the second, and my personal experience and education include six states, two countries, and three professional fields, exposures allowing reasonable appraisal of many kinds of administrators and educators. Your household (including your own education)is the single biggest factor in your child's improved student performance--nutrition, early preparation and ongoing support for rigorous child input for learning; bedtimes; physical activities, including sports (NOT a school subject, despite the helmet heads whose family time is spent in front of the tube living a vicarious 'hero' life). Class size and teacher dedication make the difference when home values are missing. Do you want to fix home values for others? You can't; you can only look after your own. You can feed the kids; control the size of classes; volunteer to spend time with youngsters who did not ask to be born without blue eyes and blonde hair--no choices! Heaven help you if only that group provides YOUR well-being. You'd be missing an extraordinary set of amazing contributions from people all over the world, with uncounted cultural and ethnic backgrounds that enrich and prolong your life without any awareness on your part. Do your job and let teachers do theirs. Do not have salaries for non-classroom personnel that exceed those of the ones who are meeting our necessary first line requirement: teaching. That old argument that dedication drives a 'real' teacher is true. However, when the students hold raffles and garage sales to make up the financial difference for what insurance did not cover in their teacher's cancer treatment, dedication won't get the papers graded and the concept explained so every different learner can grasp it--that dies when physical limits close down. Do your job. Be a hero to kids. Grow up. Use what you learned in the very best sense."
"Seems to me that what is spend on average per student is $500.00 over the average. Most of the students who come from low income families also qualify for food stamps and if they have siblings under 5 years old the household is probably also getting WIC. On average $600 to $700 per a family of four. They are also on free or reduced breakfast and lunch. That allows the family to purchase as many snacks and other food that makes them fat---so what is the purpose of giving them healthy lunches at school? Classrooms that have an average of 12 pupils vs the 20 average in other schools does not make sense when they take four months to teach them the subject of bullying. This school has a couple of talented students but they were not produced in the school, they entered school with those talents."
"'Re: 'Why do we have to change what we teach so the blacks ' Three things come to mind ... One, you are and proably never been 'Black' ... Two, the history books are written by the 'Conqueror' not the 'Conquered' and finally three .... You've already shown your ignorance in the contributions 'Black's' have made to your personal standard of living. You are so sad ..."
"It states that minority and low income students are the one's whom suffer most when it comes to funding. Does this report take into consideration the federal funding for the migrant (Hispanic) programs. There is a whole floor in the administrative building, which is dedicated just for this minority group. He/she is given everything from clothing (tee shirts, shoes, underwear, pants, socks) to every school supply one can imagine. This minority group is in better shape than any other minority group or poor student of any other ethnic group. On another note, where does the travel expense come in. The economy has caused a big hit to this extra that the instructional staff has taken advantage of to the max; staying in five star hotels, on the beach... If the tax payers could see the statistics on this figure he/she would be livid. Does this figure into the instructional category, due to the fact that it is conferences to allegedly make the teaching staff more knowledgeable? How will he/she teach now without this perk??? When I was in school, there were no conferences, and the teachers took very little time off. How did he/she do it without these conferences. Perhaps better qualifications, in field teaching?? Not only does it cost for the travel, hotel..., but it costs the taxpayer for a substitute teacher for the time the teacher misses. How does this better our child's education? What are the qualifications for a sub? Very little!!! "
"I think all schools should spend more money for better school lunches, bigger desks, and more books in the library and newer computers"
"Re: 'Why do we have to change what we teach so the blacks that make up only 18% of the population is honored. If what anyone person has achieve helps either define us as a people or achievement will help our children to understand how we got here and where they need to take us then it should be included but no group is better than another.' The issue has nothing to do with feeling honored, it is that the only contribution the history books teach students about the contributions of blacks to society is in slavery. We can learn about the fact that a European author was in love with his cousin, but not about the buffalo soldiers, or the Tuskegee Airmen. Those things are available for entertainment purposes only. The Asians in this country are also barely, if not at all acknowledged in the history classes. It is not about the percentage of the population a groups makes up, it is about American history. I seem to have learned more about Europe than America in my classes. Q! uestion: If the only thing taught in American history was how the Europeans came to America and diseased the natives and forced Christianity on the 'heathens', would that seem to be an accurate representation? I understand how you could see it as making a small percentage of the population feel good, but try looking at it from the other side."
"Having traveled all over the world and visited many schools that problem with American Schools is too much political correctness. Why do we have to change what we teach so the blacks that make up only 18% of the population is honored. If what anyone person has achieve helps either define us as a people or achievement will help our children to understand how we got here and where they need to take us then it should be included but no group is better than another. Second religion should be allowed in schools because it is a big part of who we are. the constitution does not say we can not speak about religion it just says that we can not choose one over another. So teach it based on history only but in order to understand how we got here you have to talk about it. We also need to track children like is done in the rest of the world. Not all kids are going to college so lets work with industry to make them ready for something other than warehouse work."
"re: the give-away of computers to poor kids: I'm a teacher and my low-income school used to do a program to give away computers. But the parents just sell them for money. How sad. This is why giveaways don't work: people don't appreciate it, and they abuse it."
"How can I find out what the average per student for a charter school in colorado "
"I live in Mississippi and my childrens school does not teach science. I find that very discouraging. how can i change that if possible. Can you offer suggestions and/or help."
"There is a lot involved in the education of our kids. I am not knocking teachers or the administrative side of that 'department' by no means. It does seem to me that at the first hint of budget cuts departments such as transportation, food service,maintenance and security quickly become the ones who are thrown under the bus. Instead of sharing the burden of the cuts it becomes a 'divide and conquer' battle in which the supposed 'winner' actually is a 'loser' in the long run. I am saying that the unions...especially the teachers union, and the politicians should keep this in mind. It is easier to sink a lot of lifeboats than it is to sink a ship. I know that the word 'vouchers' is very unpopular among teachers union members however ...that word is returning to the surface again and it is this 'divide and conquer' mentality that is reviving it with a blast of fresh oxygen. "
"If there are any cuts, it will NOT be the administration that suffers. The superintendents have six figure salaries. It will be the children, who do without new textbooks, and have dirty, ratty library books, no computers, have low quality 'food' full of pesticides, white sugar, white flour, corn syrup, soy {a thyroid depresser}, hydrogenated fats, sodium, milk with added sugar, flavoring, hormones and antibiotics. I hate to even think about the lack of quality of the 'meats'. It will be the children , who make do with playground equipment with arsenic in the wood and in the wood chips below the swings. There is no piano, and few art supplies. The hand-outs look cheap with small print , which kids find hard to see/read. On rainy, cold , or windy days, they must 'play 'in the gym, but they don't want the basketball floors made muddy by the children's feet , therefore, they slide a little on the floors or try to run in their sock feet and it hurts the kid's feet. This is not proper exercise, in my book. They will do without a proper inside room to play in and proper indoor exercise equipment. The teachers continue to suffer in silence, as do the children with our skeleton of a cirriculum calleld N.C.L.B. I see the light going out of little kid's eyes and the boredom and it breaks my heart. I see the teachers willing to sell their souls to keep a job, thus, they stay silent and conform. They have hard circumstances now, but it will get worse as the economy demands cuts. Need I say more? "
"To be honest with you, the school funding does not surprise me. Presidio is a border town to Ojinaga, Chi., Mexico. I think the school staff is here only to benefit themselves and not for the benefit of education. Majority of the students here speak Spanish and very little English as well as most of the school staff. I am not very happy with the education or anything else that is provided to the students here in Presidio, but we live here due to personal reasons. I think the school district here could do a better job at handling the school funding as well as educating the students. Most of the people here (school staff and the community) have an 'I don't care attitude'. The students have a very low opinion of the school staff as does the school staff towards the students. I sincerely believe someone with authority outside this school district should come and review the entire school district here in Presidio, Texas. I think this is a very sad community."
"What should I do if I suspect that there has been a gross misuse of public funds, resulting in a lack of necessary services to Special Needs students? (I am a Special Education teacher who left my Distict after 'asking too many questions about the above', and suffering retaliation and discrimination, since.) I do not have any representation of any kind. I look forward to hearing back from you, and I am glad to have stumbled across your site. "
"Why can't the school find some kind of funding or fundraising for that fact, to help low-income children have access to computers that they can not afford and in most cases, do not have even the transportation to get to a library????????"
"Special education is taking a large amount of money from the general fund. If there are many special education students in a district, then that a reason for the difference in per student spending."
"why is the schools finances considerably less than the state average? on one hand it may seem that they are being conservative and not wasting money...but you can also look at it as...not spending the dollar amounts on whats best for the students? "
"Where and what school district allows the public to query them at school board meetings and actually answer? Have you seen the trial in Tampa that is going to allow the parents, teachers, and administrators craft their own budget? It was done elsewhere and 50% of the educators jumped ship because they did not want the responsibility. When questioned my district evades and never responds. It would take a judge with a jail cell to loosen them up."
"The major variables that are under the control of the school are school size and class size. As these directly tap into the two most costly aspects of running a school (salaries and maintenance), the dollar amount required to make even slight improvements is typically so large that tax payers wouldn't even consider it. For example, to reduce class sizes from 40 to 20, you would need twice as many schools, twice as many teachers, etc. This means at least doubling what we spend on education (more than doubling until any new schools are actually constructed). Education is already the largest item in the state budget... Tax payers are simply not willing to pay for quality. "
"I appreciate the information- my husband I thought that all schools got the same amount of money-Now that I understand-Why have'nt we implemented the same amountof money and resources for each child it seems to be a simple solution.I appreciate the advice for the asking questions of the superintendent-but surely I cannot be the only parent who has asked this question-Why not spend the same amount of money on each child? Since it seems the superintendent has been unable to make a change-how as parents can we help the superintendent get our voices heard-If I can help in any way I would love to be contacted-Everyones child deserves the very best"
" I find it funny that building maintenance and operations,as well as security and monitoting;which I assume relates to the safety and well-being of our children;should be put into the 'other' catagory."
"I only read quickly through this. I did not see a comparison of a school's performance before an increase in funding compared to its identical performance after an increase in funding. My point is that the population base itself might account for performance and not funding and spending. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear nor, can you make a sow's ear out of silk purse. If the school is in a bad locale, it is not the school that produces the poo results; it is the locale. "
"Re: School Finance Are Charter schools held to the same standards as Public schools?"