About that $9,700 per student figure

by David Safier

Anyone who has been following my running debates with Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute has seen him write that Arizona actually spends more like $9,700 per student than the usually quoted figure of about $6,200.

A recently formed group, LEAN (sorry, I don't know what the acronym stands for) has explained the figure. As I've written in my discussions with Ladner, I don't know enough to make a meaningful contribution to the argument, so I'll simply give you LEAN's explanation:

A very well funded special interest group continues to promote this [$9,700] statistic to the legislature and the media.  Problem is, it isn’t a number that any reputable group would use to determine how much money a school district has to spend in the classrooms.  Here’s why:
1.  The $9,707 number is conceived by taking the total amount of revenue received by Arizona district schools and then dividing it by the Average Daily Membership (ADM) for 2007-2008.  Although it sounds like a simple way to figure things out, it fails to account for the fact that a lot of the revenue that flows through a district office has nothing to do with educating kids in the classroom…and it isn’t even money that districts can include in their budgets.
 
Some examples of what’s included in the “$9,700+” revenue number:
 
· Lunch money.  The districts have to account for the lunch money from students and the federal lunch program, but these dollars are spent for (you guessed it!):  lunches.  In the Foothills schools, this money channels through the district office and goes to Sodexho for providing the service.  This may not seem like a lot of money in the scheme of things, but in FY 2007-2008, food service money accounted for $346 million dollars in the overall Dept of Education revenue total.
 
· Adjacent Ways.  In Arizona, businesses and schools have to pay for certain construction costs whenever the roads or public ways alongside of their properties are worked on.  Last year, the Dept of Education spent over $95 million on things like sewer pipes and electrical lines that are off school property.
 
· Community Schools/Adult Education.  The school districts need to account for this money as revenue, despite the fact that the student fees go directly to fee-based programs outside of normal school hours. 
 
 (The full 2007-2008 Department of Education Annual Report, including the data sheets for the state and individual school districts can be found here: http://www.ade.state.az.us/AnnualReport/AnnualReport2008/Vol1.pdf)

A few of the people who organized LEAN, women with school aged children, have spent literally hundreds of hours researching the various claims made by anti-public education Republicans and debunking them. The work they're doing is simply amazing. Everyone concerned about our lack of adequate school funding owes them a debt. If you want to receive their emails, you can contact them at leanforeducation@gmail.com.

3 responses to “About that $9,700 per student figure

  1. I am still waiting to hear an explanation of the following from Mr. Ladner:

    Myth No. 3: Arizona already ranks 49th in the nation in education funding and we don’t want to be number 50.

    Fact: When all of Arizona’s funding streams are added up, Arizona school funding ranks in the middle of the states at more than $9,000 per student per year.

    You will note that the claim is not that it is incorrect to claim AZ per pupil spending is $6200 or $6500 or whatever number is commonly used, the claim is that AZ is not 49th in per pupil spending but ranks in the middle. Unless the Goldwater Institute has done the same calculations in the same way for all states, how is it possible to arrive at this conclusion?

  2. Mr. Ladner:

    I had a good laugh tonight when I read your comment above about being “intellectually honest” about what “counts” in school funding. With all due respect, I really don’t think you are in a position to deliver that kind of lecture.

    Regarding your comments above: I send lunch money to school so my child can purchase lunch from a food service vendor. Although my school district handles this financial transaction, the “revenue” from it never applies to anything other than LUNCH. It’s pretty simple. If I stop sending in the lunch money, my child stops receiving lunch from the district vendor but it doesn’t impact my district’s K-12 classroom budget one way or the other.

    Schools don’t “receive $346m in food aid”. Their families either purchase the food for their children or the food service is subsidized by the federal lunch program. In our district, families overwhelmingly pay for the lunches…and although I’m guessing that you chose the word “aid” to make it sound more like a Big Government Subsidy, I don’t think I’d use the word to describe the fact that I’m buying my kid lunch.

    “The adult ed stuff” that you blow off is another very large part of the revenue statistic in our district. And it isn’t just the grown-up money…last year I spent a couple of hundred dollars to send my kids to after-school activities (chess club, Mad Science, etc.) and to summer camps. ALL of these fees run through the district and are thus counted in the total revenue figure. But guess what? ALL of this money goes to the after-school or summer programming. Whether I spend the money or not, it doesn’t affect the K-12 classroom funding budget for my district.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on one thing, however. It IS difficult to have a discussion about how to get more spending into our classrooms “without reliable numbers or a willingness to recognize them as such”. I wish the Goldwater Institute would stop trying to confuse this issue by implying that the money I spend on a macaroni & cheese lunch has anything to do with Arizona’s available per-pupil funding.

    I also resent your insinuation that the public school ‘establishment’ is merely whining or ‘crying poor’. I am a parent, and along with over a million other Arizona citizens, I am part of that public school establishment. I don’t whine – I vote – and I cannot tolerate anymore political spin at the expense of my child’s education.

  3. Matthew Ladner

    Mr. Safier-

    I think if you will go back, you will see that I tried to consistently refer to revenue per pupil, rather than to expenditures. This is because our state’s financial reports are pretty close to mud when it comes to expenditures.

    It looks to me that rather than debunking things, your LEAN friends have rather made my point. Lots of money in the public school system having nothing to do with educating kids? I completely agree with that. That’s a problem to be solved, not a condition to be accepted.

    As for these various sorts of revenue you cite, notice that you never hear the public school establishment argue that they don’t need this revenue, merely that they shouldn’t COUNT such revenue. In other words, they exclude major categories of revenue, and then present what is left as the total, and then cry poor. Given that our schools receive $346m in food aid, in order to improve the learning of students, then it needs to count in the total revenue per pupil. The adult ed stuff you cite would obviously be an exception to this, as it does nothing for K-12 students.

    In other words, it is not intellectually honest to spend the money but then to pretend it doesn’t count. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    I’m more than willing to have an debate/discussion about how to get more of our spending into the classroom. It’s difficult to have such a discussion without reliable numbers or a willingness to recognize them as such.