District administrators balk at calculating how much each school spends per student

Since President Johnson’s War on Poverty Program in 1965, policy makers have been trying to equalize education spending across the United States. The lofty goal is for schools with lots of poor students to have access to the same resources that schools with rich kids have. But researchers and advocates for the poor have pointed to loopholes in Title I funding that effectively allow affluent schools to operate at higher levels of funding than low-income schools. For example, Marguerite Roza at the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that less money is spent on salaries in high-poverty schools than on low-poverty schools within the same district.

Because there can be so much variation in poverty within a school district (just think about the socio-economic differences between Tribeca and the Bronx), the Department of Education is making a big push to calculate exactly how much each school spends on a student. That might sound simple enough. But like any data project, the devil is in the details.

The issue is, how do you allocate administrative and other centralized expenses among schools? For example, say you have an itinerant teacher who spends a few hours at one school, then moves to another, and then another — each day of the week. To properly figure out how much of that teacher’s salary to attribute to each school, districts would need to create some sort of time-and-attendance punchcard system. But who wants to create such an expensive system or put teachers on punch cards?

I attended a boisterous and sometimes acrimonious session on this topic between district bean counters and the U.S. Department of Education at the NCES STATS-DC 2013 Data Conference on July 18, 2013. Many administrators protested the whole idea of counting pennies per school, saying it was too burdensome and impossible. They worried they would have to waste hours figuring out how to allocate all kinds of centralized activities, from computer servers to buses.

Building maintenance and repairs is a particularly thorny issue. Say, one school is an old building where the boiler bursts and the outside bricks need repair. The repair costs could make it look like an absurd amount is being spent per student in that old schoolhouse. But these funds aren’t going to instruction to the direct benefit of the students. One administrator in Massachusetts, which already calculates school-level expenditures, argued that only instructional costs should be included. “There’s no point in trying to allocate a superintendent’s salary” among schools, he said.

Another worry is that accountants could come up with all kinds of rules for how to allocate centralized expenses, but it wouldn’t reflect reality. That is, you could say “divide a speech therapist’s salary by the number of schools in the district,” but perhaps that speech therapist spends more of her time in some schools than others. And then policy makers, politicians and advocacy groups would be using bad data to make decisions.

Stephen Cornman of the U.S. Department of Education urged local education official to submit comments by August 20, 2013 to specify which district-wide expenses are feasible and infeasible to allocate among schools.

Cornman’s powerpoint presentation included this chart:

Examples of Expenditures That May Be Relatively Feasible or Infeasible to Track at School Level

Relatively Feasible

Could Be Attributed With Effort


* Salaries for most teachers

* Itinerant teachers and staff


* Salaries for school-based instructional staff

* Technology hardware and software

* District administration

*Employee benefits for instructional staff

* Telecommunications

* Staff who provide district-wide services

* Equipment, furniture, fixed assets

* Food services

* Maintenance and operations

* Textbooks

* Instructional materials

* Office supplies

* Professional development

I remember being frustrated at an early attempt to calculate student spending by district. I’m now starting to understand how meaningless these numbers are.




POSTED BY Jill Barshay ON August 1, 2013

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