on education

thoughts from a graduate student at the university of mary washington

(the trouble with) financing public education. week six.


Because of the economic crisis, there has been much worry about financing public education in recent years. With the collapsing economy, many school districts have found themselves trying to serve more and more students with less and less money. The recession has triggered large state revenue shortfalls, and states finance almost half of public education costs (Ornstein, Levine, & Gutek, 2011). Because of this, educators everywhere are being held accountable for the money that they spend.

According to the Federal Education Budget Project, the national average in 2009 for per-pupil spending was $10,591. Virginia’s per-pupil spending in the same school year came in slightly higher, at $10,928. The primary sources of financing for public schools are local, state, and federal dollars.  Primarily, this money comes to school districts via local property taxes. Eleven states use this tax exclusively to bring in revenue for schools (Ornstein, Levine, & Gutek, 2011, p. 237). At the state level, two major sources of funding are sales taxes and personal income taxes. Half of the states and Washington, D.C. then use the money collected in a foundation plan, which guarantees a minimum annual expenditure per student by the state. While the most common practice, it is not entirely equitable, as it leaves poor schools suffering and wealthy ones better off (Ornstein, Levine, & Gutek, 2011). The federal funding states receive is a much smaller number, and has shifted away from block grants to categorial grants made to schools. For example, for fiscal year 2009 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, the federal contribution was only 4% of the budget, at $11,575,000, or just under $500 per student (National Center for Education Statistics). Many say that this simply isn’t enough to keep up with the financial demands of No Child Left Behind, especially in a worsening economy when budgets are shrinking.

State spending figures vary across the country. For example, the per-pupil expenditure rate for Utah was $6,612 in 2009. In the same year, Massachusetts spent $14,540 per student (Federal Education Budget Project). To make sense of these numbers, one has to consider an array of variables, such as cost of living, overall population, wealth, poverty, property values, and whether or not states levy income taxes and what their state sales tax rate is, if they have one. It’s easy enough to deduce, though, that more money spent generally leads to higher achievement levels in the student population.

School districts are starting to get creative with how they use their budgets. An up-and-coming trend that I caught wind of recently seems sound. It’s called public-private partnerships. Basically, it’s for capital projects and infrastructure spending, and it allows the school districts to go to the open market and seek out a private firm to hire. Having capital projects on the open market drives costs way down because of competing businesses, and also allows projects to be completed in a timely manner because there is virtually no red tape to cut through. They also allow investment in the right places at the right time by prioritizing projects (Kenny & Gilroy, 2012). If a contract is worked right, schools can also negotiate in maintenance costs being picked up by the private firm for the length of their contract. Now that’s savvy budgeting!

Despite creative ways to save and spend money, school districts are hurting. In Virginia, there were 2,211 schools as of 2011 (National Center for Education Statistics). How do we make sure that the funding provided to them is equitable? The current model isn’t working. In 2009, Caroline County, Virginia, spent $10,971 per student. Compare that with Arlington County, where in 2009 per-pupil spending was $21,656 (National Center for Education Statistics). Because a majority of the revenue afforded to school districts is from local taxes, it will always remain inequitable unless we change that model. My thought is to significantly lower local property taxes, if not abolish them all together. Instead, collect a state property tax and have the state then disburse that money equally to all 2,211 schools, in addition to the dollars brought in by state sales and income taxes. Hopefully, this would give wealthy districts a little less and poorer districts a little more to work with. With that money, more districts could afford to update their buildings, books, and classroom resources.

Our students deserve a system that looks a lot better than this:




Federal Education Budget Project. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://febp.newamerica.net/k12/VA

Kenny, H., & Gilroy, L. (2012, 09 28). 21st century schools require 21st century finance. Retrieved from http://reason.org/news/show/21st-century-schools-require-21st-c

National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/ccd/districtsearch/

Ornstein, A., Levine, D., & Gutek, G. (2011). Foundations of education. (11th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.


posted under EDCI 506
One Comment to

“(the trouble with) financing public education. week six.”

  1. Avatar October 31st, 2012 at 10:57 am yes, you'll be tested on this. » Blog Archive » class time and student achievement. week ten. Says:

    […] The results of the Teach Baltimore study, a 3 year study of summer school effects, found that “when such summer learning programs are begun early, before disadvantaged students have had the opportunity to fall so far behind, they can help prevent the anticipated growth in the achievement gap attributable to summer” (Fairchild, 2011). Fairchild also points out that many major cities and schools are actually partnering with non-governmental and public entities for enrichment and summer activities, such as universities and other community-based organizations. On average, programs like this that have been put in place cost significantly less than adding 30 days to the traditional, instructional calendar. The cost per pupil in that Boston figure was almost $2,800. These enrichment programs cost between $1,000 and $2,000 per pupil. They involve the public-private partnerships that I previously blogged about here. […]

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