Public School Spending Will Be More Accurately Reported

Published June 1, 2003

The nation is spending more money on public education than the public has been led to believe. We have helped implement a change to the annual reporting of education statistics that will provide a much more accurate measure of total public education spending. What remains is to make such statistics available on a more timely basis.

“Brainchild of a Mad Man”

In 1999, together with Lance Izumi of the Pacific Research Institute, we helped focus attention on the difficulty of obtaining an accurate figure for per-pupil education spending in California. We pointed out that the per-pupil revenues for many school districts were much higher than the statewide figures. The recent report from Mike Antonucci’s Education Intelligence Agency, showing per-pupil spending by district, confirmed that point:

  • For the 2000-01 school year, current spending per pupil across the state’s 1,036 school districts averaged $6,965.
  • The highest-spending district, Modoc County Special Schools, spent $89,461 per pupil.
  • The lowest-spending district, Gorman Elementary, spent $4,641 per pupil.
  • 374 districts spent more than the state average of $6,965 per pupil.

In our 1999 report, “A Short Primer on Per-Pupil Spending in California,” we suggested–because of the difficulty in obtaining and interpreting financial data–“it would be virtually impossible for the average voter … to fulfill his or her theoretical role of holding the public schools accountable.”

A recent study of categorical spending by Sacramento Bee writer Deb Kollars concurred, with her newspaper suggesting readers might think the system “is the brainchild of a mad man.”

Bee columnist Dan Walters continued: “[T]here’s precious little oversight by either the state Department of Education or the Legislature on how well the money is being spent–whether the programs are doing the intended jobs, or even comprehensive financial audits to determine whether the money is being ripped off.”

Understated Spending

Although the public schools claim to be accountable to the public for “every penny” they spend, the average parent, taxpayer, or voter has little chance of determining just how much money is spent by a particular school district. In addition, the most commonly quoted figure for per-student spending in public schools–current spending per pupil–understates total spending by about $1,200 per year.

School District Demographics
The U.S. Census Bureau has made demographic data from the 2000 Census available by individual school district. The Bureau’s School District Demographics System provides access to a wide variety of school district geographic and demographic data, such as population by age, race, income characteristics, etc.

The starting point to access these tables is

For decades, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics has reported per-student spending in the public schools as “Current Spending.” That figure provides only a partial accounting of per-student spending since it leaves out two important items: school construction costs and the interest expense on school bonds.

Although the total spending figure has always been available in the annual Digest of Education Statistics, the reporting focus has been on the current spending figure. As a result, this is the figure most commonly cited by the news media. For the school year 2000-01, national current spending per pupil stands at $7,284, with total spending approximately $1,200 higher.

In early 2002, our group, California Parents for Educational Choice, approached the U.S. Department of Education with a proposal for improving the way the Digest of Education Statistics reports per-student K-12 public education spending. Our proposal was to give more attention to total spending per student. With the Bush administration pressing for more accountability in the public schools, this proposal received a very positive reception from Russ Whitehurst, assistant secretary of education. As a result, the May 2003 issue of the Digest of Education Statistics will present total spending per student with more clarity.

However, even these changes fall short of the ideal, since the state-by-state table of total expenditures per pupil uses only 1999-2000 school year data–one year behind the 2000-01 data reported by the Census Bureau and four years behind current school year expenditures. Improving the timeliness of reporting should be the next area for improvement.

Dr. Alan Bonsteel is an emergency and family physician and president of California Parents for Educational Choice (CPEC); his email address is [email protected]. Carl Brodt, a certified management accountant, is a commercial bank vice president and treasurer of CPEC.

For more information …

The paper by Lance Izumi, Carl Brodt, and Alan Bonsteel, “A Short Primer on Per Student Spending in California,” published on November 18, 1999 by the Pacific Research Institute, is available online at

The Sacramento Bee‘s six-part series on categorical aid to California public schools may be accessed online at