Education Spending

In a stack of papers called Legislation.

  • Jun
  • 23
  • 2005

Per pupil spending is an unfortunate straw man that education and government alike enjoy dragging out in front of the public. This straw man helps either side make their case about education spending and the statistics support both sides. Meanwhile, the real villains are left unaddressed and our children are stuck in a damaged system that needs to see real change.

We all have it in our heads that California is woefully lacking in per pupil spending. I am a high school teacher and I’ve seen classrooms that are in need of repair: our school theater floods every time it rains, so there’s a permanent mildew smell in the place that we affectionately refer to as “the dungeon.” I know that schools are not seeing the money they need to do the best job for students: reproduction allowances stretch more and more thin each year and if I want to photocopy something to give to my students because I think it will help them learn a skill, I should be able to copy away without concern (and by the way, due to budget cuts there is no drama, speech, creative writing, or journalism, resulting in the first year without a school newspaper in at least 13 years; band was missing this past year, though it will be reinstated next school year).

Despite all this, I was shocked to find out that California spending per pupil isn’t as bad as I’ve been hearing from fellow teachers and reading in professional publications. Several studies indicate that this per pupil spending myth is incorrect or at least exaggerated. More importantly, state per pupil spending doesn’t tell us anything that has to do with the efficacy of public education; per pupil spending is not a statistic that is worth our concern.

ePodunk provides a list of state spending per pupil for 2001-2002, where California ranked as 23rd with $7,511 spent. In a compiling of NEA database information, spending for 2002-2003 is noted as $7,244 (30th) and for 2003-2004 is noted as $7,692 (25th).

Since the early 2000s, California spending has been in the middle. Not a great place to be, but certainly not as bad as dead last. ePodunk, a collection of former print journalists and other technology experts, and NEA, a national collection of education employees, bring California firmly into the mid-20s in terms of per pupil spending, solid evidence that California spending is not so far from the national average.

But these figures vary widely.

Pacific Research Institute suggests that 1999-2000 spending per pupil was $7,272. The San Francisco Chronicle stated a spending amount of $6,025 for 1999-2000. Education Week (free registration required) sets the figure for California spending in 1999-2000 at $6,298.

Which is it? A quantifiable figure should be easy to quote, even 5 years later. But PRI, the Chronicle, and Education Week cannot agree.

This is why, when sites list education spending in California (in 2002) as low as 44th, suspicions should be alerted. Being 44 out of 50 looks bad, yes, but all other data has suggested that the actual spending in California is planted in the middle: not good, not bad, just average.

So we are left with one set of figures that those in education will quote. Those figures reflect terribly low dollar amounts and indicate that more money should be spent on education; they suggest that California government is irresponsible in its spending.

And we are left with another set of figures that those in politics will quote. Those figures are fairly average and indicate that the amount of money we are spending is just about right; they suggest that California educators’ groups are greedy for more cash.

Real figures, actual dollar amounts that are spent per pupil, would make more sense in this case. Dividing the amount of students in the state by the amount of education funding that actually reaches the classroom, the amount that can be spend on instruction, should yield the number needed to determine how well or how poorly a state’s students are funded. In addition, the amount spent on education should be stated in terms of percentages of the state’s budget. This percentage could then be used as a comparison so we generate some kind of idea how states rank in funding. This data should then be correlated to test scores (SATs, ACT, and applicable exit exam), graduation rates, and college entrance exam results. Only then will we see any link between dollars spent and education achieved.

There are a lot of things wrong with public education in California and, surprisingly, some of those things are financial wrongs. The amount of the state education budget that actually reaches the classroom is unfortunately small; teacher salaries are not competitive with other jobs or with other economies; programs that help students are repeatedly cut in order to teach the bare minimum; many teachers scramble to afford pencils and paper out of their own pocket due to no budget at school sites for these items; there are no state technology standards, ironic for a state that’s the home of the Silicon Valley; student textbooks are limited, limiting, or lost; federal policies require school districts to cover costs that are not funded, resulting in fewer actual dollars to use on education. Per pupil spending is not as big an issue as some may have you believe, though.

The way that spending is measured should be a greater concern. If three entities that should be able to cannot agree on a figure, that suggests facts are open to interpretation, a very uncomfortable assertion to notice. A number “adjusted for regional cost differences” is immediately suspect; many budget numbers at state levels are later “adjusted” for a number of accounting reasons and education sites “adjust” numbers in a partial attempt to level the playing field (a dollar in San Jose, CA is not the same as a dollar in Phoenix, AZ). Instead, though, an “adjusted” number is skewed and ready for someone with an agenda to fit it into their condemnation of the other side.

The way the education budget is spent each year is problematic. Examining the way the dollars flow down to individual school sites, siphoned off at federal regulatory, county office, local district, and site administration levels to people who never see a student and/or who have no educational background at all or pay for unfunded mandates from the President, would cause most people to go into shock.

Take a closer look at the real problems with education spending. Pick your set of per pupil spending statistics you want and move on to the bigger issues. But certainly do your own research before accepting any statistics or numbers. Chances are there are other sources out there that report what you want them to. As citizens, let’s do our best to remain objective. As a teacher, that’s what I have to do everyday. As a teacher, that’s what I have to do even about my own profession.

1 comment

1. Bill says:

[6/11/2008 - 11:00 am]

Well stated. The real fraud of ‘rankings’ is that, irrespective of spending, someplace has to be ‘dead last’ as the NEA would put it. State by state avg. per pupil spending is $50K and CA is $49K? CA is ‘dead last.’

And, as you state that which the educrats refuse to note, spending does not equate to classroom performance. This is depressingly evident in the propensity of school boards to feather their own nests (new admin. buildings, ridiculous admin./teacher/student ratios)

S.F. Board of Education wasted several tens of millions in bond issues supposedly for earthquake retrofits. Still not done after more than ten years but they’ve received their raises and new admin. facilities. And now they want yet another bond issue. The voters really must be products of that school system.