The dramatic inequality of public-school spending in America


An Apple Inc. iPad sits on a desk used in a second-grade classroom at Park Lane Elementary school, in the Canyons School District, in Sandy, Utah, U.S. on Monday, May 20, 2013 (George Frey/Bloomberg)

During fiscal 2012, New York City's school district, the largest in the country with nearly a million students, spent more money on each one of them than any other large public school system in the country. New York spent $20,226 per pupil, according to updated Census data released Thursday on the finances of the country's public schools.

That's twice as much as was spent on children in the Prince William County public elementary and secondary schools outside of D.C. ($10,090, below the national average of $10,608). Among school districts with more than 40,000 students, New York's total even farther surpasses what's spent on children in El Paso, Tex. ($8,209), Brevard County, Fla. ($,7801) and the biggest school districts in Utah (all below $6,200).

Per-pupil spending alone doesn't tell us everything about the quality of education in any given school district, although a shortage of money certainly says a lot. Underfunded districts, as The Post's Valerie Strauss wrote this week, inevitably struggle to afford special-education staff, smaller classes, better computers and teacher development, among many other things.

But this latest Census snapshot underscores the reality that a public education may imply vastly different resources depending on where you get it (and what local tax revenues look like). These numbers -- note that they're not adjusted for differences in cost of living -- do not include spending on capital outlays or paying down long-term debt. They do include money spent on teacher salaries, instruction and support services. By state and region, the variation is broad:

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In this latest accounting, the nine states in the Northeast all rank among the top 15 states by per-pupil spending. Of the 20 states spending the least, 18 are in either the South or West.

To drill down to the school district-level, these are the per-pupil rates in the highest-spending school systems with more than 40,000 students. Seven of the top 18 are in Maryland:

district update

Denver ($10,075), San Francisco ($9,842) and Fulton County around Atlanta ($9,304) don't even crack that list. Meanwhile, much smaller school districts in the Northeast far outspend even New York City. Two dozen smaller districts in New York State spend in the range of $30,000 or more.

Families don't generally shop around for education by this metric; knowing that Baltimore spends slightly more than nearby Howard County probably won't lure a parent to move there. But when we think about the consequences of funding public education as we do in America — a system heavily reliant on local revenue that produces wide variation both across the country and within individual states — these numbers make plain the reality that where children live matters for how much we invest in them.

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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