Grand Pianos, Subway Sandwiches, and Bounce Houses: Are Public Schools Spending Tax Dollars Efficiently?

Written by: Amy Auletto

Primary Source: Green & Write, March 30, 2016

Photo Courtesy of Images Money

Photo Courtesy of Images Money

Public schools are often accused of wasteful spending. With the abundance of negative media coverage on this issue, it’s no surprise that these accusations are rampant. Last year, for example, a Kansas City high school was in the spotlight for its purchase of a $47,000 grand piano. Chicago Public Schools spent $2.9 million on food catering in just one school year, with purchases including $200,000 at Subway, $81,000 at Potbelly Sandwich Works, and $55,000 at Dave & Buster’s. An audit of education spending in Arizona found that school personnel have fraudulently spent or stolen more than $25 million over the last 15 years. A North Carolina superintendent spent $16,000 in federal funds on entertainment, including bounce houses and a video game trailer. Stories such as these beg the question: are public schools spending tax dollars efficiently?

How Do Schools Spend Money?

Before considering whether public schools spend tax dollars efficiently, it is important to understand how the typical school allocates its funds. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), U.S. public school spending in 2011-12 was $621 billion, or $12,401 per student. More than half of that $12,401 was spent on instruction. Instruction includes teacher and staff salaries, extracurricular activities, and classroom supplies. The remaining funds were spent on operation and maintenance, administration, student support, instructional staff services, transportation, and food services. Student support includes services such as guidance, health, and attendance. Instructional staff services are activities such as curriculum development and staff training. It is important to note that these are all national averages. The rate at which students are funded varies tremendously across states and districts. For instance, students in New York receive, on average, $19,818 while their peers in Utah are only funded at $6,555 per pupil.

2011-12 expenditures per student

Attempts at Measuring Efficiency

There have been a number of attempts at measuring the efficiency of public education expenditures. A 2015 report by WalletHub attempted to rank the 90 most populated U.S. cities in terms of their efficiency in education spending. Essentially, this report looks at the relationship between test scores and spending in each city while controlling for socioeconomic factors. They concluded that Miami, FL, Grand Rapids, MI, and Richmond, VA were the most efficient spenders while Springfield, MA, Yonkers, NY, and Rochester, NY were the least efficient.

However, reducing a city’s efficiency to the ratio between their test score ranking and how much they spend seems a bit too simplistic. This fails to address the issue of how the money is being spent within each district. As a piece by The Fiscal Times points out, schools have varying expenses based on their unique locations. The cost of living varies dramatically across the country, schools located in high-crime areas need to spend additional money on security measures, and districts with low-performing students need to devote more funding to supplementary programming.

A 2014 report found that spending priorities vary greatly between districts. For example, some districts spend more than $1,000 per student each year on athletic programming. This report also found that only two states, Florida and Texas, analyze the productivity of how their schools spend money. Furthermore, states with the most inequitable funding systems are home to some of the least efficient districts. Only a few states use a weighted student funding approach, where funding is assigned based on individual students’ needs. Expectations from states on budget procedures are often vague and inconsistent, with little oversight or accountability.

Are Public Schools Spending Tax Dollars Efficiently?

The answer to this question is unclear. As described above, there has been no lack of effort in attempting to answer this question. We know that there are plenty of instances of blatantly inefficient (and illegal) spending, as well as evidence that districts vary dramatically in how much funding they receive and how they choose to spend it. However, it does not appear that we really have a clear idea as to whether schools are spending their money in a way that maximizes student outcomes. There is undoubtedly room for improvement in our understanding of productive education spending.

Stay tuned for future Green & Write posts on other education finance topics in the coming weeks. We will examine the real cost of the federal school lunch program and address the age-old question in school finance – do resources matter?

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Amy Auletto
Amy Auletto is a doctoral student in Educational Policy. She is interested in the impact that equitable funding and access to effective teachers have on the educational outcomes of disadvantaged student populations. Prior to beginning her studies at Michigan State University, she taught middle school math in Detroit. Amy earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, master of Social Work, and MA in educational studies from the University of Michigan.