Sunday, June 14, 2009

Trickle Down Learning

How much does your public school district spend per pupil on education? According to a recent position paper from the Nevada Public Policy Institute (NPRI), it’s most likely more than you think, indeed more than you have been told.

In “Funding Fantasies” (download here:, the Institute’s education policy analyst Patrick Gibbons finds that “[t]he true cost of educating students is regularly misrepresented behind claims that certain expenditures, such as capital outlays and debt service, should not be counted, because those expenditures are not directly related to student learning. But such thinking merely seeks to illegitimately exploit the arcane distinctions of accountancy. If the expenditure does not contribute to student learning, why is it being made?”

Well, good question.

In Clark County (Las Vegas area), the school district reported per pupil spending for the recent school year would be $7,175, but dividing budgeted spending for the school year by the number of students, actual spending per student is $13,387. In Washoe County (Reno area), actual spending per pupil by weighted enrollment was $11,395. But the basic support claimed by the district is $5,323. Not included there is “additional revenue from...federal funds, local funds, capital project funds, food service funds, special service funds and debt service.”

This problem is not singular to the State of Nevada. Gibbons writes “[u]nderreporting of per-pupil spending is a nationwide practice. In the District of Columbia, Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute found that D.C. schools spent more than $24,600 per student—despite officially claimed expenditures around $13,500 per student. Meanwhile the average tuition at a D.C. private school that accepted vouchers from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program was just $6,620.”

Well, one way of reading this is to confirm suspicions: a huge portion of the money spent on public schools never makes its way into the classroom. It is in the interest of administrators and educators to cry “not enough money” when the truth is closer to “not enough money well spent.”

Gibbons finds that of the $13,387 to be spent per pupil in Clark County in 2008-2009, only $4,514 (33.7%) was to be spent on “instruction related expenses.” Average salaries within the district range from $55,651 for workers in facilities to $113,189 to those in curriculum and professional development. He asks, “Can CCSD's academic results justify these generous average salaries?”…and notes “[t]he district employs 32,202.39 full time equivalent staff (FTE) on its payroll. That’s roughly one employee per 10 students, and an average salary-and-benefits package of $69,871.”

WestEd, a non-profit research institution based in San Francisco, looked at student graduation and achievement rates in Nevada in 2005. The institute concluded in the executive summary to its report (done in collaboration with the Center for Education Policy Studies, CEPS, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas):

Our review of the state’s student achievement and graduation rate data leads to several findings:

On achievement. Despite some recent gains among the state’s high school
students, achievement remains low, ranking Nevada near the bottom among U.S. states. Moreover, as in other states, a significant racial/ethnic and socioeconomic achievement gap persists.

On the graduation rate. Although wide variations exist across districts, Nevada’s overall graduation rate is one of the nation’s lowest. Here, too, the racial/ethnic and socioeconomic achievement gap is evident.

Well, there are gaps and gaps.

NPRI found a gap in school districts’ knowledge: “whether [districts'] spending patterns have any link at all to the policy priorities they publicly profess”…or is spending “an accidental system in which spending decisions, regulations and other restrictions are made piecemeal and with conflicting intent”...noting that “[s]chool board contracts with teacher unions currently determine how nearly half of all funds available to public education are used.”

Of course, teacher unions have a purpose…to increase teacher pay and benefits, but is that synonymous with increasing student achievement? Looking at results, the answer is “not necessarily.”

Accounting, also, has a purpose, but is it to clarify where the money goes or to obfuscate? In Nevada and in the nation, school districts hide the significant expenditures that create a top-heavy school bureaucracy and then claim to the public that they haven't enough money to educate students to even mediocre standards. Perhaps pundits should pan it as trickle down (maybe) learning.


  1. I applaud you, Terro. I've hashed this about with friends until my face is blue. Even all those years ago that I taught, I wouldn't be part of the NEA. The writing was on the wall then -- and when unions and the government control the classroom, the learning has nowhere to go but down. The kids' learning is not the primary focus any more.

    The newspaper here just reported the area kids passed the graduation tests with 75% of the students able to read and do the math. That's pathetic. And the unions and school boards will ask for more money next year to bring up the percentages. They do every year. (If only we'd just teach the kids.)

    I've commented before about the teaching and testing methods used here locally -- and it gets me riled up. So I'm going to get a glass of ice water and take a walk. :)

  2. Hi Barb...It's terribly frustrating to look at the educational outcomes in our public schools and then listen to educators praising themselves. It's got to be terribly frustrating and even heart-breaking for a parent to have to send a child to a poorly performing "neighborhood" public school. I believe all parents deserve school choice in the form of charter schools and/or school vouchers to be spent at the parent's choice of private k-12 schools.

    I don't believe any parent would freely send a child to a school where learning does not happen. What a shame it is that our education system forces parents to do just this.