As the result of a new requirement under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the public is getting a close look at how much money public schools—not just districts—spent educating Alabama’s children.
And those numbers, from the 2017-18 school year, are all over the map, varying widely between districts and between schools—even in the same district, and there is no clear link between dollars per pupil and student outcomes.
One surprising finding in the school-level spending numbers was that spending is actually higher in schools with higher levels of poverty, generally speaking, even after federal dollars—which are typically higher at schools with more students in poverty—are removed.
“You can’t draw many conclusions,” said Alabama Superintendent Eric Mackey directly from the spending data. While some want to look for correlations between high amounts of spending and high student outcomes, he said, it’s just not that easy.
In Alabama, the average amount spent per student was $9,425, but spending ranged from $726 per student in Limestone County’s Virtual School Center to $131,305 per student at Shelby County’s Linda Nolen Learning Center, which served 49 students with unique emotional, academic and medical needs.
When federal dollars are removed from the mix, the average amount drops to $7,787 statewide, and spending at the school level ranges from $637 per student at Decatur High’s Developmental school to $116,240 at Tuscaloosa City School’s Oak Hill School. Both of those schools serve students with special needs.
The average total spending at schools in Alabama not serving specialized populations was $9,374. That spending ranged from a low of $4,593 per student at Eufaula’s Moorer Middle School to a high of $20,020 at Lee County’s Loachapoka High School.
As to why spending is so high, Lee County Superintendent Mac McCoy said Loachapoka is a small high school—fewer than 250 students in seventh through 12th grades—where nearly all students are in poverty. Providing the basic instructional program requires higher levels of local support and more programming, he said.
Spending varies within school districts, take a look
A look across the state reveals wide variations at schools even within the same district, which raises questions about how school resources are allocated.
For example, in Jefferson County, the district’s International Baccalaureate, or IB, school spent nearly $17,700 per student, while less than half of that was spent per student at McAdory High and Shades Valley High schools, where the amounts were $8,670 and $8,564, respectively.
Jefferson County Superintendent Craig Pouncey said the IB school is a specialized school that serves the whole community. The school recently expanded, adding 350 students in grades six through 10 requiring more money from local tax dollars. “Local funding has to be used to fund new programs for the first year,” he said, before state funding kicks in.
In Huntsville City schools, spending at Williams Junior High School was $13,401 per student, while on the other side of the city at Hampton Cove Middle School, officials spent $7,070 per student.
At the elementary level, spending amounts can range widely as well. For example, in Birmingham City schools, spending at EPIC Elementary was $17,158 per student, where at Inglenook Elementary, spending per student was $9,447. Even after removing federal funding—which can vary based on student poverty—spending at EPIC was $12,375, while at Inglenook, it was $7,855 per student.
The only way to understand why those amounts differ is to ask school and district officials, as AL.com did with Pouncey about their IB program cost.
So now, take a look at the spending data for your neighborhood school.
Comparing schools using the 1,300-plus page document the state department posted is difficult, so AL.com created a couple of interactive data visualizations allowing a look at spending in all schools across the state in a number of ways.
As always, it is best viewed on a laptop or large tablet. Click here if you’re on a mobile device to view in a separate, full-size window.
In the visualization below, you can see spending for all schools in all districts, or narrow down to just the district you’re interested in. All figures are per student expenditures. Hover over the bars for more information about the school. The color of the bar represents the percentage of students that are economically disadvantaged: the redder the bar, the higher the percentage of students in poverty. “PP” stands for per pupil/student.
Choose whether you want to view spending as a total per student amount, broken down by function—instruction, transportation, food services, preschool, school administration, general administration, student support, instructional staff support, operations and maintenance—or by source of funding, meaning federal, state, local, or state and local amounts together.
Choose also which types of schools you wish to view. Alternative schools and school serving students with special needs are the schools with the highest spending and unchecking that box may make it easier to make comparisons among non-specialized schools.
And here’s a way to see how individual school spending compares to the district as a whole. Click here to view in a separate, full size window.
The differences in spending show how each of the state’s 1,300-plus schools faces its own set of unique challenges, Mackey said. And how the money is spent matters more than the amount, he said, as local systems may choose to pay for summer learning, afterschool programs, or additional teachers to lower class sizes.
In many places, Mackey said, schools spend a lot of money and have high student outcomes, but in other places, he said, schools have strong student outcomes without spending as much. “There is no strong correlation from which you could draw clear policy decisions,” he said.
Local school administrators will have to be the ones to answer questions about how that money is being spent, though, because the newly available data shows total spending and then breaks it down into broad categories, like instruction, transportation, and administrative expenses.
Schools that exclusively serve specialized populations, such as children with disabilities or those in alternative school settings, spent the highest amounts statewide at $38,500 and $22,100 per student on average, respectively.
Perhaps as one might expect, the state’s 2,800 virtual school students—meaning all classes are taken remotely and online—received the lowest average spending at $2,936 per student.
The new school-level spending data is required under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed with bipartisan support in 2015. Federal officials extended the deadline for states to post the spending data until 2020, but Alabama, along with 16 other states went ahead and published the data as part of the 2017-18 federal report card.
All but one Alabama school district, Anniston City Schools, is represented in the data. The district did not have financial data ready for publication, according to a spokesperson for the Alabama State Department of Education.
As for the breakdown by poverty levels in Alabama, AL.com looked at schools above the median level of poverty (41%) and below. In the 663 schools where 41% or more of students were in poverty, the average spending was $10,137 per student.
That’s $800, or 9% higher, than in the 649 schools where fewer than 41% of students are in poverty, where the average was $9,308 per student.
Take away those federal dollars for those same two groups and it’s closer. Then spending averages $8,060 in high-poverty schools and $7,855 elsewhere.
It’s a very slight difference, and one that is likely due to a slight adjustment in state funding that takes into account the value of property within a school district, said Jefferson County Superintendent Craig Pouncey, who was the state school chief financial officer until 2014.
How it works
In Alabama, school systems are mainly supported through state tax dollars. But local property values influence that state support.
The state divvies up tax dollars through a formula, mainly based on the number of students and schools, but then deducts the equivalent of 10 mills of property tax. That’s a big deduction in wealthy areas, where property values are high, and a small deduction in rural areas. It’s meant to help poorer systems.
For example, in Lowndes County, in 2017-18, of the $9.8 million the district earned in state money the state sent $8.8 million because 10 mills of local property tax in Lowndes County was worth $1 million, or $100,000 per mill, and that local property tax had to be used as the local part of the Foundation Program.
Conversely, fast-growing and wealthy Baldwin County the same year earned $171.6 million in state money, but the state sent only $131.6 million because 10 mills of property tax there is worth $40 million, or $4 million per mill.
Federal money, aimed at special populations, including English learners, children with disabilities, and children in poverty adds up to about 14% of funding for schools statewide. Federal funding is also used to serve students meals at school.
But in Alabama, schools rely totally on local funding for anything beyond the state’s minimum curriculum. That means local property values also largely determine how much, if any, additional teachers or courses a system can provide.
Why differences exist
Removing the schools serving children with special needs, virtual schools, and alternative schools, a few patterns emerged among the rest, including magnet schools, IB schools, and charter schools (only one was operating during the 2017-18 school year).
Generally speaking, more money was spent in high schools, due in part to the wider range of academic and extracurricular offerings in high schools.
“In high schools, the divisor is lower, which brings in more state dollars,” Pouncey said. State funding makes up about 68% of a school’s funding on average, he said.
“That means class sizes are smaller, generally speaking,” Pouncey added. “Districts can add specialized programs like Advanced Placement, dual enrollment opportunities and career tech if they have the local tax capacity to fund them.”
Some schools are funded nearly entirely with state dollars, and in more than 220 schools—one in six—state funding accounted for 75% or more of total spending.
Elementary schools should have relatively similar levels of state and local spending, Pouncey said. If differences exist, he said, that may be due in part to the school having more experienced teachers or teachers with higher degrees.
Money spent on teachers, administrators and aides are the biggest expenditure for any school, he said. “Salary and benefits,” he said, “generally account for about 85% of a school’s budget.”
Less money is spent in middle school grades, which reflects the lower state funding for sixth through eighth grade. “Consequently, you’ve got 30 kids in a middle school class,” he said, and that’s worrisome.
Middle school is where kids start getting off track, he said, and this new spending data helps expose the weakness in how the state funds schools through the Foundation Program, first enacted in 1995 and still in place 25 years later.
Pouncey said while the Foundation Program did a lot to improve equal state funding among schools and districts, it didn’t address whether the amount being provided was adequate.
Many states have moved to allocating state funding based on the challenges a student has, he said, which helps schools with higher levels of poverty or children with special needs, for example.
“Is it fair,” Pouncey asked, “for one district that has a 15% special education population to get the same level of state support that one that has only 10% of its population [in special education]?”
“That’s a big flaw,” he said, because not all communities have the local tax capacity or local wealth to raise the money needed to ensure schools have what they need to address a student’s challenges and are more reliant on state funding.
If you have questions about these spending numbers after reviewing them, Pouncey reiterated, talk with school officials. “Superintendents should be in a position to explain to anybody why those variances exist within their districts,” he said.
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