According to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in 2012 the median value for U.S. school districts’ total expenditures per student was $11,770.
The variation is enormous. Per pupil spending – which includes funding from federal, state, and local sources – ranged from as little as $5,412 per pupil in Utah to as much as $20,226 per pupil in New York (City) in school year 2011-12.
School district total expenditures include all monies a school district spends over a given year. While the data is collected and published by NCES, the easiest place to compare your district’s expenditures to other districts in your state is at the Federal Education Budget Project Web site.
How to Use the Data
Expenditure data can show how education money is spent and the resources that ultimately get the best results. Districts can use the data to compare their expenditures to other districts to determine if they are in line with other districts within their state.
How the details were measured
NCES and the Federal Education Budget Project (FEBP) report the spending data as the school district total expenditures per student. They created the figure by dividing the total school district expenditures by the number of students enrolled, therefore, expenditure data cannot be broken down by race or class.
Limitations of the data
The expenditures data published was not collected for accounting purposes, so the data excludes some capital-related spending and debts that the state may have paid on behalf of the district. This means that data should not be used to calculate budget or financial statements. Furthermore, because of the difficulty of collecting the data, the expenditure data on NCES and FEBP are often old. The most recent data available on their Web sites are from 2008, therefore data from local sources is likely to be the most current and more beneficial to you.
Additionally, the data does not allow for expenditures to be tracked back to their revenue source. You cannot, for instance, figure out how Federal Title I money was spent at a specific school or district. To get that type of information, you should contact your district budget office.
Key Questions to Ask
Can expenditure data be broken down by race, ethnicity, and other student groups?
District spending can be examined by function and program so that expenditures can be fully understood, but not by racial or ethnic student groups. The data should also be looked at on a total and per-pupil basis. To calculate a per-pupil basis, the expenditures are divided by the total number of students.
Does your state or district collect school-level data?
According to a recent study by Education Week, twenty-three states collect expenditure data at the school level. A push for school-level expenditure data—which tends to be more accurate and reliable—should be undertaken in your school or district to get a firm grasp on how money is being spent at the local level. The study is available free to registered users of Education Week.
Has school finance data been integrated with student and staff data?
Typically, finance data systems have been developed independently of staff and student databases. But to figure out how spending is connected to achievement, you should push for more integration between the data systems. For example, the availability of integrated data would help schools and districts answer key questions such as, “What would it cost to improve the qualifications of all of a district’s math teachers?” The National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) guide, Forum Guide to Core Finance Data Elements, provides more information on this issue.
How do your district’s expenditures compare to other districts within your state?
You should compare your own district’s per pupil expenditures to per pupil expenditures of districts around your state that are of similar size and demographics. For example, if you’re a small rural district with one K–12 school, it will not be very useful to compare your spending to a large urban district. Your district should also compare its per pupil expenditures to high-performing districts with similar demographics, and to neighboring districts. Doing so will provide you with tools needed to advocate for the proper level of spending in your district that will produce the greatest gains for students.
There are a number of other sources for state-by-state information about school district expenditures. The newspaper Education Week recently released a report that examines how state expenditures relate to student performance. While the report relies on Census data , the newspaper analyzed the data in some interesting ways, providing the percent of total taxable resources spent on education and the average annual rate of change in expenditures per pupil in each state. The report is available free to registered users. Again, the NCES guide is a helpful tool for understanding federal and local financial data because it explains basic concepts and terms. Some states, like Oregon, offer brief online tutorials to help school and district leaders get a better handle on state and district financial data. The state’s School Finance 101 document is extremely helpful.
If you want to compare spending between districts, researchers recommend using operating expenditures instead of total expenditures, because total expenditures include monies spent on capital outlay (e.g., school buses, building additions or repairs, property maintenance, debts), which vary significantly from year to year. Within operating expenditures, you should pay particular attention to costs relating to instructional expenditures. NCES breaks this measure out, which looks only at spending related to the interaction between teachers and students. Specifically, the instructional expenditures category includes all spending related to teacher salaries, teacher aide salaries, and costs related to textbook and other instructional supplies.
If you want to gain access to raw state-level expenditure data, you can download the information from the NCES document, Revenues and Expenditures by Public School Districts: School Year 2011-12. If you want raw district-level data, you can download it as an Excel spreadsheet from the Census Bureau. Note, however, that the information in these databases may differ from the data released by states and districts because of differences in definitions and reporting methods. For their part, Hawaii and the District of Columbia also consider their school systems to be a single, unified district.
When comparing district and state expenditures to each other, you should consider making adjustments for differences in geographic costs and student enrollment. To adjust for geography, most researchers use the Comparable Wage Index (CWI), which is a measure of regional variations in the salaries of college graduates who are not educators. To adjust for differences in student enrollment, the research is less definitive. Some researchers, such as those at the Education Trust, increase student enrollments by 40 percent to take into account the higher cost of educating economically-disadvantaged students. Researchers use the 40 percent adjustment because it is used in the Federal Title I formula to determine whether states have distributed funds evenly to districts that educate economically-disadvantaged students. However, the costs of educating special needs students, such as those who are economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, and English language learners, vary not only between states but between districts, so it is important to consider the costs in your district before making comparisons. More information on the research of enrollment adjustments can be found in the NCES document, Disparities in Public School District Spending 1989–90.
Portland school board remains results-driven—While this district still faces financial challenges due to a dramatic drop in student enrollment, it has made headway with fewer cuts than originally anticipated and a board that works hard to work with the community to revamp its high schools.