How Much Do We Spend Per Pupil?

The Common Sense Institute of New Jersey, a libertarian organization that opposes current levels of government spending, has just put out a new report called “Misleading the Taxpayer: the Per-Pupil Expenditure Dilemma.” The author, Mark Jay Williams, compares various ways that New Jersey estimates education costs and concludes that the variability among different formulas amounts to systemic underestimation by local school districts and a veritable sleight-of-hand for taxpayers.

If you can compartmentalize the political bent there’s some interesting stuff. For example, New Jersey spends 54.9% more per pupil than the national average ($16,271 vs. $10,499) . Also, the three ways residents can view per pupil costs -- the DOE’s User-Friendly Budgets (the “primary tool responsible for misleading taxpayers”), costs-per-pupil in the NJ State Report Cards, and The Taxpayer’s Guide to Education Spending – have a surprisingly wide range. The author writes, “[d]epending on the reporting source utilized, Asbury Park‘s per-pupil expenditures ranged from $22,090 to $39,149, a difference of $17,059.

For a sense of the political angle, Abbott district funding is described as “the egregious example where mostly urban poorer districts are mandated to receive additional state taxpayer aid." Here's the author's thoughts on NJ’s tradition of home rule:

New Jersey‘s home rule has created a system whereby each of 43 districts serves fewer than 200 students, each of 125 districts serves fewer than 500 students, and each of 232 districts serves fewer than 1,000 students. Each of 389 districts serves fewer than 2,500 students, and each of 477 districts serves fewer than 5,000 students, leaving 72 districts serving more than 5,000 students.45 The median enrollment for the 549 districts in this report is 1,276 students, which is much lower than the research-supported optimal district size of 2,000 students.

There’s also attacks on school boards, particularly the fact that although very few districts estimated reductions in per pupil spending in 2009 and 2010, “an astonishing 82 percent of the districts have projected expenditure reductions for 2011.” The author implies some sort of duplicitous malfeasance. But remember that school budget expenses are mostly payroll and benefits. While in 2009 average staff salary increases were something like 4.5%, now they’re in the 2% range, which might account for the projected reductions. Also, school staff, like all public employees, are starting to ante up for more of the contributions to pension and health benefits premiums, another source for lower costs to districts.

Another example of the rush to judgment is what Williams calls the “astounding” difference between estimated cost per pupil in the Taxpayer’s Guide and the user-friendly budgets in Lakewood Public Schools: $10,566. There’s nothing nefarious there, merely a reflection of the fact that the Taxpayer’s Guide includes the costs of out-of-district special education placements and the user-friendly budgets don’t include those costs. Out-of-district special ed placements are practically a hobby in Lakewood. It’s not the district’s fault that the DOE budgets fail to integrate that factor.

But check it out. There's certainly something to be said for consistency in governmental reporting.

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