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School Finance

  • Recent Trends In The Sources Of Public Education Revenue

    Written on March 24, 2015

    Every year, the U.S. Census Bureau issues a report on the overall state of public education finances in the U.S. There is usually a roughly 2-3 year lag on the data – for example, the latest report applies to the 2011-12 fiscal year – but the report and accompanying data are a good way to keep an eye on the general education finance situation both in individual states as well as nationwide, particularly among those of us who are somewhat casual followers (though it bears keeping in mind that these data do not include many charter schools).

    One of the more interesting trends in recent years is the breakdown of total revenue by source. As most people know, U.S. public school systems are funded by a combination of federal, state and local revenue. Today, although states vary considerably in the configuration of these three sources, on the whole, most funding comes from state and local revenue, with a smaller but still significant contribution from federal government sources (total revenue in 2011-12 was about $595 billion).

    But there has been some volatility in these relative contributions over the past few years (at least the past few years for which data are available). The graph below presents the percent of total elementary/secondary education revenue from federal, state and local sources between 1989-90 and 2011-12.

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  • Unreliable Sources: Education Revenue During The Recession

    Written on June 6, 2013

    For the better part of the past century, U.S. public education revenue has come predominantly from state and local sources, with the federal government contributing only a relatively small share. For most of this time, local revenue (primarily property taxes) comprised the largest proportion, but this began to shift gradually during the 1970s, to the point where state funds constituted a slightly larger share of overall revenue.

    As you can see in the simple graph below, which uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau, this situation persisted throughout the 1990s and most of the 2000s. During this period, states provided roughly 50 percent of total revenue, localities about 45 percent, and the federal government approximately 5-8 percent. Needless to say, these overall proportions varied quite a bit by state. Vermont represents one of the most extreme examples, where, as a result of a 1997 State Supreme Court decision, education funding comes almost entirely from the state. Conversely, since Hawaii’s education system consists of a single statewide district, revenue on paper is dominated by state sources (though, in Hawaii's case, you might view the state and local levels as the same).

    That said, the period of 2008 to 2010 was a time of pretty sharp volatility in the overall proportions contributed by each level of government.

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  • The Relatively Unexplored Frontier Of Charter School Finance

    Written on May 3, 2012

    Do charter schools do more – get better results - with less? If you ask this question, you’ll probably get very strong answers, ranging from the affirmative to the negative, often depending on the person’s overall view of charter schools. The reality, however, is that we really don’t know.

    Actually, despite uninformed coverage of insufficient evidence, researchers don’t even have a good handle on how much charter schools spend, to say nothing of whether how and how much they spend leads to better outcomes. Reporting of charter financial data is incomplete, imprecise and inconsistent. It is difficult to disentangle the financial relationships between charter management organizations (CMOs) and the schools they run, as well as that between charter schools and their "host" districts.

    A new report published by the National Education Policy Center, with support from the Shanker Institute and the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, examines spending between 2008 and 2010 among charter schools run by major CMOs in three states – New York, Texas and Ohio. The results suggest that relative charter spending in these states, like test-based charter performance overall, varies widely. In addition, perhaps more importantly, the findings make it clear that there remain significant barriers to accurate spending comparisons between charter and regular public schools, which severely hinder rigorous efforts to examine the cost-effectiveness of these schools.

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  • New Report: Does Money Matter?

    Written on January 6, 2012

    Over the past few years, due to massive budget deficits, governors, legislators and other elected officials are having to slash education spending. As a result, incredibly, there are at least 30 states in which state funding for 2011 is actually lower than in 2008. In some cases, including California, the amounts are over 20 percent lower.

    Only the tiniest slice of Americans believe that we should spend less on education, while a large majority actually supports increased funding. At the same time, however, there’s a concerted effort among some advocates, elected officials and others to convince the public that spending more money on education will not improve outcomes, while huge cuts need not do any harm.

    Often, their evidence comes down to some form of the following graph:

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  • In Census Finance Data, Most Charters Are Not Quite Public Schools

    Written on June 6, 2011

    Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual public K-12 school finance report (and accompanying datasets). The data, which are for FY 2009 (there’s always a lag in finance data), show that spending increased roughly two percent from the previous year. This represents much slower growth than usual.

    These data are a valuable resource that has rightfully gotten a lot of attention. But there’s a serious problem within them, which, while slightly technical, hasn’t received any attention at all: The vast majority of public charter schools are not included in the data.

    To gather its data, the Census Bureau relies on reporting from “government entities." Some charter schools fit this description neatly, such as those operated by governments or government-affiliated bodies, including states, districts, counties, and public universities. But most charter schools are operated by private organizations (mostly non-profits), and finance figures for these schools are not included in the report (the Census classifies them as "private charter schools").

    What does this mean? Well, for one thing, it means that the overall spending figures (total dollar amounts) are a bit understated. Charters only account for a relatively small proportion of all public school enrollments (around 5-6 percent); still, given the huge amounts of money we’re dealing with here (the U.S. spends roughly $600 billion a year), we’re talking about quite a bit in absolute terms. Perhaps more important is the potential effect on per-pupil spending figures – the way that education financing is usually expressed.

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