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Georgia trails national average in school spending. Should we invest more?

Many issues in education are open to debate, but none more than school spending. It would seem a straightforward question: Do we spend too much or too little on our schools? 

One of the reasons for the array of opinions is that you can't determine whether spending is adequate until you answer this question: What do you want schools to do?

In the last 30 years, we have asked schools to do a lot more, including educate all children to a standard once expected of only a few. The belief was most students didn't need to be college ready because they were bound for the local mill, family farm or factory job. Many of those options no longer exist and students need more sophisticated skills to survive in a knowledge-based economy.

Now that we are asking schools to educate every student to higher standards, are we funding them to that end?

In a new report, the U.S. Census finds Georgia spends less than the national average on education and ranks 38th in the country in school spending. In 2014, Georgia spent $9,202 per pupil, nearly $2,000 below than the national average of $11,009. (See the AJC news story here.)

New York leads the nation, spending $20,610 per student, 87 percent above the national average. At the other end, Utah spends $6,500.

According to the Census report:

Per pupil spending for the nation was $11,009, a 2.7 percent increase from 2013. This was the largest increase in per pupil spending since 2008 when there was a 6.1 percent increase from the year prior.

Per pupil spending includes gross school system expenditure for instruction, support services and noninstructional functions including direct expenditure for salaries, employee benefits, student transportation, building maintenance, purchased property and other services and supplies.

Following New York, the highest spending per pupil in 2014 was in the District of Columbia at $18,485, Alaska at $18,416, New Jersey at $17,907 and Connecticut at $17,745.

After Utah, the states spending the least per pupil were Idaho at $6,621, Arizona at $7,528, Oklahoma at $7,829 and Mississippi at $8,263.

Of the 100 largest school systems by enrollment, Maryland had four of the 10 public school districts with the highest current spending per pupil. This marks the seventh year in a row Maryland has had four schools in the top 10 in this category. The top five school districts for per pupil spending were Boston City Schools at $21,567, New York City School District at $21,154, Anchorage School District in Alaska at $15,596, Baltimore City Schools in Maryland at $15,564  and Howard County Schools in Maryland at $15,358.

  • State governments contribute the greatest share of public school system funding at $288.6 billion, or 46.7 percent of total revenue.

  • Revenue raised from local sources amounted to $276.2 billion, or 44.7 percent of public elementary-secondary funding, while the federal government contributed $52.9 billion, or 8.6 percent of public elementary secondary funding.

  • The $276.2 billion schools received from local sources included $239.0 billion from taxes and local government appropriations.

  • Public school systems receiving the highest percentage of revenues from the federal government were Louisiana with 15.3 percent, Mississippi with 14.9 percent, South Dakota with 13.9 percent, Arizona with 13.3 percent and New Mexico with 12.9 percent.

  • Public school systems receiving the lowest percentage of revenues from the federal government were Connecticut with 4.0 percent, New Jersey with 4.2 percent, Massachusetts with 4.8 percent, New York with 5.5 percent and New Hampshire with 5.5 percent.

In her Georgia Budget & Policy Institute blog, senior education policy analyst Claire Suggs writes:

Gov. Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission could have outlined a plan to close this gap and boost investment in our students when it developed its recommendations last year, but that didn’t happen. Money matters when it comes to student achievement, especially for low-income students. More than 60 percent of Georgia’s students are low-income, the fifth highest percentage in the nation.

When states invest more in low-income students, they do better in school and in life. A recent study found funding increases for low-income students can

  • Increase high school completion rates
  • Raise adult earnings
  • Raise annual family incomes
  • Reduce incidence of poverty

A second new study shows student achievement goes up when states’ investment in students does. These studies confirm earlier research linking greater financial resources with improved student outcomes and refute the oft-repeated refrain, it’s not how much you have, and it’s how you spend it. The way districts spend money matters but they have to have enough to spend in the first place.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.