One of the most quoted statistics in education has always been how much a school district spends per student. It is helpful when comparing school districts,but what if you want to compare schools? That data was not available —- until recently.
A provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to report how much individual schools spend per student.
The change has normally button-down policymakers and education finance experts excited.
Researchers will now be able to do what they haven’t been able to do for years: understand how schools spend money. The data will also be very helpful in assessing the impact of interventions and answering some important questions:
How does class size impact student outcomes? How do schools differ in how much they pay teachers? What is the range of per student spending between schools whose students come from high income families and schools whose students are from poor families? Why do schools that spend less per student sometimes have better outcomes that some schools that have higher per student spending?
Of course, the spending data is helpful in identifying what is working and not working in a school. However, the data also has value because of what it might point to. Context is always needed to properly interpret any data. For example, American Association of School Superintendents (AASA) estimates that employee salaries and benefits comprise 80 to 85 percent of school budgets. If a school is spending considerably more than those percentages, the data might cause policymakers to look around and ask why? Is the faculty older or younger? Are costs tied rising premiums or other costs? Are there state and local mandates that impact the level of spending? School level data on per pupil spending may not provide the answer to some important questions, but skilled researchers will figure out where to look.
States have been posting school level per pupil expenditure data since the beginning of this year. The NC Department of Public Instruction links per pupil expenditure data (2018-19) to the North Carolina State Report Cards where school level data is accessible from the site.
The Edunomics Lab of Georgetown University provides a convenient school spending data hub to find school-by-school spending in each state and useful tips for exploring and interpreting the data.
Policymakers and parents should welcome these changes. Not only does the data provide useful information on how schools manage their money; the effort encourages transparency, something always in short supply when we talk about schools and spending.