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.