As American students head back to school this month, it’s a good time for parents and taxpayers to think about what public schools are spending and what parents are getting from that investment. While many people underestimate what public schools spend per student, transparency reforms and technology can give the public greater insight into the costs and benefits of public schooling.
According to a May 2023 Morning Consult poll sponsored by EdChoice, the average American adult estimates that public schools spend $5,000 per student. And 55 percent of American adults believed that per-student spending in their state is “too low.” But that’s only if they are not given information about what public schools actually spend.
A recent Department of Education report showed that the average per-pupil expenditure in public schools was $14,300 in 2021, or nearly three times more than the average American’s estimate according to the Morning Consult poll. (State-by-state average expenditures vary between a low of $9,000 in Utah to $26,000 in New York.) When provided with information, the survey found that only 38 percent believed that funding was too low.
Educating parents and the public about what public schools spend is necessary to inform ongoing public policy debates about public education. The widespread and often prolonged school closures during the pandemic have increased parents’ support for reforms to expand parental choice options. Over the past two years, eight states (West Virginia, Arizona, Iowa, Utah, Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, and Ohio) have established universal school choice programs that give most parents the opportunity to choose their children’s schools or directly access their child’s sharing of education funding through an education savings account or tax credit.
But support for giving parents more options to decide how their children learn could grow even more if the public had a clearer understanding of exactly what public schools spend. That’s why my organization, the Foundation for American Innovation, created Project Nickel—a website showing what public schools spend and where the money goes.
In the past, people interested in public school spending had to search through Department of Education reports that provide national estimates of average state per-pupil spending, or even dig through state budget documents for more granular information. A bipartisan 2015 federal law requiring states to begin publicly reporting per-student spending by school was a big improvement. But many states still found a way to hide the information, publishing data files and spreadsheets that were difficult to access.
With the philanthropic support from EdChoice, and using data collected by Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, we created Project Nickel to make this information accessible. Users can search for a specific school and even use maps to compare what other nearby public schools are spending per-student. In this way, using technology and new federally mandated data reporting provides the American public with real transparency about public school spending.
This transparency is valuable for several reasons. First, it will help parents make more informed decisions about where to send their children. A recent survey released by National School Choice Week found that 46 percent of parents reported that they were choosing to send one of their children to a new school next year. For parents choosing between schools, per-student spending will provide an important indicator of resources available at the new school.
Real transparency about public school spending should also inform ongoing debates about public education reforms, including whether and how to help parents choose different resources or otherwise control funding to give their children a better opportunity. Since many states and school districts still require students to attend public schools based on children’s residence (a practice rooted in the discriminatory history of redlining), comparisons of what public schools spend per student should inform public debates about equity and fairness.
Looking forward, Congress and state policymakers could do more to improve transparency about public school spending and school quality. With the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee planning to reauthorize several expired laws governing the Department of Education’s research and statistical collection practices, lawmakers should consider additional reforms to make it easier for the public to access data about public school spending, enrollment, and quality.
For example, Congress could require states and school districts to require schools to report information based on their physical address (rather than PO boxes), provide updated data annually, and publish school enrollment data. Congress should also require the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to provide more transparency about the findings of federally funded education research.
But even without these needed reforms, the current transparency about public school spending in the United States provides parents and the public with long-overdue information. American students have suffered widespread and historic learning losses following pandemic school closures. Parents should know exactly what public schools spend on their children’s education and consider if those resources could be put to better use elsewhere.