NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

How Much Do Public Schools Spend on Teaching?

May 12, 2011

School districts claim that funding cuts would require them to close schools and drastically increase class sizes, but states have little choice: K-12 schools take an average of 36 percent of general funds annually.  However, school district budgets can be cut without touching classroom spending, says Michael Barba, a graduate student fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

School districts very often define spending categories in unexpected ways, making it difficult to distinguish classroom spending from operational costs.        

  • While schools annually spend an average of about $10,000 per student, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that only 60 percent of these expenditures are instructional.        
  • Instructional spending includes teacher and staff salaries, extracurricular activities such as sports or clubs, and classroom supplies.        
  • However, instructional expenses are often unrelated to the classroom.          
  • In Texas, for example, vehicle, equipment and computer maintenance, as well as food service, property insurance and refreshments for meetings are considered instructional expenditures.

Including all dollars spent reduces instruction's share and gives a clearer picture of the total bill.  For instance, during the 2008-2009 school year:       

  • Philadelphia, Pa., schools reported that instruction was 54 percent of its expenditures, but including capital costs and other expenses, only 31 percent of its spending was instructional.        
  • Similarly, Washington, D.C., public schools reported spending 53 percent on instruction, when it took only 35 percent of total expenditures.

Determining how many dollars end up in classrooms would allow parents, teachers and legislators to hold administrators accountable, but this cannot be done until classroom spending is distinguished from all other spending.  Districts could then measure what percent of expenditures are devoted to the classroom in proportion to every dollar spent, regardless of its budget category, says Barba.

Source: Michael Barba, "How Much Do Public Schools Spend on Teaching?" National Center for Policy Analysis, May 12, 2011.

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