Does Higher Per-Pupil Spending Guarantee Success? The Numbers Say No

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2006

As county governments in Northern Virginia continue finalizing their budgets for the next fiscal year, one number always stands out: their school divisions' cost per pupil.

For fiscal 2007, as was the case last year, Prince William County will have the lowest cost-per-pupil figure among major school districts in the area, generating debate about whether Northern Virginia's second-largest school district is sufficiently competitive with its neighbors. For next year, Prince William has a projected annual cost per pupil of $10,496, compared with $12,917 in Fairfax, $12,461 in Loudoun, $17,500 in Arlington and $17,968 in Alexandria.

Some parents say that Prince William needs to spend more per student -- and hire more teachers to reduce class sizes, for example -- because the county is lagging behind Fairfax and Loudoun on state standardized tests and SAT scores. Critics point to how a smaller percentage of Prince William students pass the state Standards of Learning exams in English and math than the students of Fairfax and Loudoun, according to 2004-05 division results on the Virginia School Report Card.

"We certainly have plenty of areas in Prince William where the demographics suggest test scores should be through the roof," said Martina Boone, chairman of the Prince William County Parents Executive Committee, who recently transferred one of her children to a private school in Fauquier County. "We should be spending more per student."

Prince William school officials, however, say that although their students' SAT scores are among the area's lowest, they think they are doing a better job than their neighbors in closing the achievement gap between whites and minorities -- an enormous goal under the No Child Left Behind Act. Schools that do not demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" by minority students face penalties under the law.

According to the Virginia School Report Card, a higher percentage of black and Hispanic students in Prince William passed the English and math SOL exams last year than did their counterparts in Fairfax and Loudoun.

In the context of those successes -- and in an area with many voters adamantly against higher taxes -- Prince William's more than 80 schools and 70,000 students are operating "efficiently and effectively," said Lucy S. Beauchamp, the county School Board chairman.

"It's absolutely not a cheap education. We put student achievement first. Go across and look at all the subgroups of minorities," Beauchamp said. "The minute our achievement goes down, then you'll see people start to fight to put more resources in."

School officials in Northern Virginia say there is no magic cost-per-pupil figure that a school district should strive for, only that it should be within range of a neighbor and that it must be complemented with high student performance and community satisfaction.

Frequently, it can be difficult or unfair to compare districts whose sizes differ by magnitudes.

For instance, even though Alexandria's cost per pupil is more than 40 percent higher than Prince William's, does it mean that Alexandria is a better school district? Figures show that Prince William has considerably higher average SAT scores (1012 vs. 963) and much higher percentages of blacks and Hispanics -- and students overall -- passing the SOL exams in English and math.

Rebecca L. Perry, Alexandria's superintendent, said that the district's cost per pupil is high because the system operates much smaller schools with lower student-to-teacher ratios. And, she added, Alexandria is much more diverse, with more students who have difficulty speaking English and who come from low-income families.

"You just have to compare school division by school division and the idiosyncrasies," Perry said. "The key is not how they spend, but look at how well they are progressing."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company