Policy Documents

They Spend WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools

Adam B. Schaeffer –
March 10, 2010

In this Policy Analysis, Schaeffer writes that although public schools are usually the biggest item in state and local budgets, spending figures provided by public school officials and reported in the media often leave out major costs of education and thus understate what is actually spent.This study reviews district budgets and state records for the nation’s five largest metro areas and the District of Columbia. It reveals that, on average, per-pupil spending in these areas is 44 percent higher than officially reported.

Real spending per pupil ranges from a low of nearly $12,000 in the Phoenix area schools to a high of nearly $27,000 in the New York metro area. The gap between real and reported per-pupil spending ranges from a low of 23 percent in the Chicago area to a high of 90 percent in the Los Angeles metro region. To put public school spending in perspective, the author compares it to estimated total expenditures in local private schools. He finds that public schools are spending 93 percent more than the estimated median private school.

Citizens drastically underestimate current per-student spending and are misled by official figures. Taxpayers cannot make informed deci- sions about public school funding unless they know how much districts currently spend. And with state budgets stretched thin, it is more cru- cial than ever to carefully allocate every tax dollar. This report presents model legislation that would bring transparency to school district budgets and enable citizens and legislators to hold the K–12 public education system ac- countable.