Why per pupil spending?

As I learn more about public funding for education, I have been questioning why the de facto metric is per pupil spending. I’m sorry, but per pupil spending does not intuitively make sense to me. If you tell me that school A spends $5,000 per pupil and school B spends $10,000 per pupil, what am I supposed to assume?

  • That school A is hoarding money and not spending it on students.
  • That school B is wasteful and taking students on field trips to Paris.
  • That the district likes school B’s programs better.
  • That school A’s district keeps more money for itself.
  • That the two schools have the same budget of $1,000,000 but school A has 200 students and school B has 100 students.
  • That school A has more young teachers who make less money.
  • That school B has more students with special needs.
  • That school B was able to privately fundraise on top of its given budget.

For example, the website School Funding Fairness uses discrepancies in per pupil spending as the cornerstone of its argument that public school funding is unfair and inequitable. When experts present school funding numbers, I bet none of the above assumptions is what they want me to make.  But the fact remains that focusing on per pupil spending leaves me with more questions than answers.

The numbers I *actually* want to see when I think about school funding have more to do with:

  • How schools get their money
  • How schools spend the money

And when I think about the answer to either of these, I don’t think of per pupil spending.

How schools get their money

I want to see what money schools have coming in, broken down by federal, state, and local sources, as well as private fundraising. And I want to see *why* it’s coming in, such as weighted student formula, grants, etc.

How schools spend their money

I want to see a breakdown of school expenditures, including what % of the budget is spent on salaries, instructional expenses, enrichment programs, and things like food, buildings and transportation.

The good news is that budget information such as the information provided on the SFUSD website is presented in more detail than just per pupil funding. The bad news is it’s not always easily accessible in the most intuitive format.


Donor funds used to cover salaries

When I lived in Boston I served on the board of a pilot public school, Fenway High School. Sitting on the  board’s Finance Committee, I got more comfortable looking at school budgets. In fact, one of my projects was analyzing budget data. I put together a presentation that showed while funding from BPS was declining, more and more of the funding that Fenway was raising- intended for enrichment programs- was covering basic operational expenses such as teacher salaries and instructional materials.

These types of insights into school budgets- which are just the tip of the iceberg- don’t come easily. Becoming familiar with Fenway’s budget took a lot of time and conversation with other board members and school leaders. As I learn more about public education funding, I’m interested in getting to the metrics that reflect what’s really happening inside the schools. Digging into funding for San Francisco public high schools, I hope to shed light on how schools get their money and how schools spend their money, explained in ways more intuitive than per pupil spending.

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