According to Education Week, school districts on average spend $11,912 per student based on 2016 figures. While the average may seem high per student, spending on education varies widely among school districts within states, with many districts spending less than one-half the national average. The federal government provides only 10 percent of the funds used in school districts, with the remaining funds being provided by states and local jurisdictions. Property taxes play a vital role in education funding. Wealthy school districts, by definition, have an advantage over poorer districts.
The spending patterns of four randomly chosen school districts are examined below: North Rockland Central School District, New York; Temecula Valley Unified School District, California; Hinds School District in Raymond, Mississippi; and Davis County School District, Utah. Of particular interest will be whether an increase in per student funding correlates directly to academic performance.
The correlation between funding and student performance has been widely debated for years. A recent paper written by Kirabo Jackson and Claudia Persico of Northwestern University and Rucker Johnson of the University of California links funding to academic performance: “The group found that the increased funding had the greatest effect if it was used to raise teachers’ salaries, reduce class sizes or lengthen the school year.”
Davis School District is headquartered in Farmington, Utah, population 22,159. Davis School District spends $7,208 per student and the median income per family is $85,700. Eight-three percent of its students scored proficient on state administered testing. Davis School District boasts a 90 percent graduation rate and a 25:1 student teacher ratio. Within the district, teacher salaries average $56,369. Of the overall school budget, 63 percent is spent on instruction.
Raymond, Mississippi, is home to Hinds School District. Raymond is a town of 1,933 residents. Median family income is $42,629. Hinds School District spends $8,597 per student and the average teacher salary is $38,162. Sixty-one percent of its students scored proficient on state assessment measures. Hinds School District has a graduation rate of 82 percent with a student-teacher classroom ratio of 14:1. Hinds School District spends 51 percent of its overall school budget on instruction.
Temecula Valley Unified School District in California spends $7,846 per student and reports a graduation rate of ninety-four percent. Seventy-three percent of its students demonstrated state assessment proficiency. The student-teacher ratio is 26:1, with teachers making on average $87,262. Temecula spends 69 percent of its school funds on instruction. Temecula has a population of 106,780 based on 2013 information, when its median household income was $78,356.
Stony Point Town is located about 40 miles from New York City. Its current population is estimated to be 14,245. The median income for a household was $71,946 and per student spending in this district is a whopping $24,811 per student. The graduation rate is 83 percent with a mere 33 percent of students scoring proficient on state-given math tests and 38 percent proficient on reading tests. The student to teacher ratio is 14:1 with an average teacher salary of $122,538. Of the total school budget, 69 percent of the funds are spent directly on instruction.
Answers unfortunately are not obvious from this random sample. School funding per student should provide measurable success in at least two areas, student performance and graduation rates. There certainly are other variables at play, and we tried to hold as many of them steady as possible — including marriage rates and percentages of homes with children.
This small study demonstrates just how hard it is to move the needle on positive educational outcomes in towns considered to be average to above average across the U.S. How spending on education affects graduation rates and student academic performance needs more work.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Anne-Greyson Long, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.