If only they’d get their cost per pupil numbers straight

by David Safier

Let me repeat for the umpteenth time, I don't have the background to argue the question of how much Arizona spends per pupil. Ed Week cites a figure around $6,500, which is accepted in most circles. The Goldwater Institute figure, being picked up by Republican legislators, is around $9,700. I'll leave the number crunching for my betters on both sides.

But the pro school choice conservatives aren't very consistent in their assessment of how much we spend on education and if it's enough. Tom Horne says we're 49th in per pupil spending, which the G.I. folks disagree with. Our Accidental Gov says we're eating our seed corn by cutting school funding, while G.I. and conservative legislators say our schools are doing fine and can absorb the cuts.

And now I find this. This morning's Atlanta Journal Constitution has a point-counterpoint about school funding. The "funding doesn't matter" argument is put forward by Dr. Benjamin Scafidi, college prof and director of the Center for an Educated Georgia, who writes critically about the rise in school funding and the drop in graduation rates in Georgia.

21 states spend less than Georgia and have higher graduation rates, including three that are highly diverse like Georgia. Arizona spends $2,500 less per student, yet has a graduation rate that is 23 percentage points higher than Georgia’s. [bold type added]

California spends $2,000 less per student, yet has a graduation rate that is 13 percentage points higher than Georgia’s.

Texas spends almost $1,000 less per student, yet has a graduation rate that is 12 percentage points higher than Georgia’s.

He says Arizona spends $2,500 less per student than Georgia.

Scafidi, by the way, is no public school apologist. He's a pro school choice kind of guy. His Center for an Educated Georgia is "the online gateway connecting you to information and resources relating to school choice options in Georgia." Some of his writings are published by the (Milton) Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, where, by the way, G.I.'s Matthew Ladner is listed as one of four Friedman Fellows.

I looked up Scafidi's 36 page paper which forms the basis of his AJC comment, Return on Investment? Public Education in Georgia. It was published a few months ago, in January, 2009. On page 19, he lists the amount states spend per student, starting with the lowest. Utah comes in at $5,828, and Arizona comes in at — drum roll, please — $6,559. Scafidi lists Georgia at $9,193.

I'll tell you what, G.I. Before you try to convince all us bleeding heart public school advocates that Arizona spends an unconscionable $9,700 per student, will you get your fellow pro school choice conservatives on the same page? If they don't accept your number, why should I?

24 responses to “If only they’d get their cost per pupil numbers straight

  1. Not for nothing, sheapenny, but your posts make you sound a helluva lot more like a Brown Shirt than anyone else here.

  2. I posted my comment about illegal aliens effecting our Public Tax payer Funded Education Systems in the United States BEFORE Obama made his speech today: guess where Francine he made that speech?/ Before The Mexican Chamber of Commerce!!
    Maybe he knows the statistics as he said:” Mexican Children are the most disadvantaged of all the minorities even though the “Statistics” state that Black Students are 20% drop-outs and Mexican Students are 12%???!!
    What a guy this Obama is!!!!

  3. Flounder:
    I was born in P.A. in 1927 and moved to Tucson in 1945.
    My Family and I lived through the Great Depression and saw things you will never see in this so called Great Depression manufactured to create a crisis to push forth a Socialist-Markist Agenda as stated by Obama and Clinton in Europe yesterday; “A Crisis should not be wasted!”
    If you like what East Germany looked like in 1957 keep on supporting the propaganda being fed to you by the Media and Obama who in my time was being fed to us in the 1930’s by the very same media out of New York who were praising Hitler and holding Brown Shirt Rallies in New York City called the Progressive’s who were the American Hitler Youth movement!
    As for me being un-American I spit in your face!

  4. Matthew Ladner


    Quite the contrary- I’ve shown you that Arizona is seriously underestimating their revenues and expenditures. The method I’ve provided is quite straightforward, and I’ve provided the example of a state that does the calculation, which you claimed couldn’t be done. Early on, Mr. Safier accused me (wrongly) of manufacturing a spending number to suit my purposes. This seems to me what you want to do, as you can’t get much more straightforward than taking the total expenditures and dividing it by the total number of students.

    Note that President Obama notes how the United States spends beyond the dreams of avarice for school administrators in the vast majority of the world and has bad results. Your response seems to be to put your hands on your ears and yell “La La La!!! Arizona doesn’t spend as much as Alaska!”

    There can be no doubt that that figure was over $9,000 per pupil. If you don’t want to count certain types of revenue, you’ll have to convince the schools to stop taking it and spending it. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. There is also no doubt that this is considerably more than is received by Arizona charter schools, which, by the way, dominate the lists of the top end of Arizona public schools.

  5. Well I can see we have reached an impasse for now. You have not shown to me that Arizona is calculating per pupil spending in some nefarious way, in fact you have provided evidence that AZ is reporting numbers correctly as is evidence by the federal reports. You believe we should use numbers which include new school building funds when discussing school funding, but even when doing this Arizona ranks at the bottom in per pupil spending which counters your widely quoted insistence that AZ is in the middle in school funding. You claim there is no crisis in school spending because you think we are about average when in comes to spending, yet provide no evidence of this or claim the evidence is not reliable. You believe increased education funding is not tied to success, I believe funding is one factor in a quality education system and know there is empirical evidence to support this as well.

    Until next time.

  6. Matthew Ladner


    I don’t believe I’ve criticized anyone for repeating the given official statistics. A stubborn belief in their accuracy in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is worthy of critcism in my opinion.

    This isn’t rocket science or really even complicated. If you want an expenditure per pupil figure, you total up the expenditures and you divide by the number of students. If you want a revenue per pupil figure, you follow the same procedure. Notice that this is precisely what the state of Texas does, and what Arizona ought to do as well. Again, notice the $25 per pupil versus thousands per pupil difference in Texas and the thousands of dollars difference here in Arizona.

    Mr. Safier has pointed to some minor sources of revenue that ought to be excluded, which is fine. Most of those funds (like student lunch money) wouldn’t show up in the expenditure number in any case, and the two numbers aren’t that different, seperated by a few hundred dollars per pupil.

    When you start playing games- facility funding doesn’t count, deseg money doesn’t count, who knows what else goes on in the basements of state departments of education- the entire state ranking exercise becomes heavily influenced by who is taking the most liberties with their numbers.

    I don’t see how it is the least bit productive to cling to a myth of desperately underfunded Arizona public schools. Funding for the public schools has increased steadily over the years, and after the current crisis abates, they will do so again. The state however has other major funding needs in a variety of areas- higher education, social welfare, health care, transportation and criminal justice. A misguided attempt to throw money at the schools and hope for the best is not in the cards. There is an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence suggesting it wouldn’t do much good in any case even if we could do it, which we can’t anyway. It would be nice if more money were a silver bullet, but it isn’t, which is a shame as we already put a great deal of money into the system.

    If we want improvement, we’ll have to do some of the things that President Obama talked about in his education address today. Predictably, I didn’t agree with everything the President had to say, but I did agree with major elements of the speech. The President said he wants merit pay for teachers, and to remove perenially ineffective teachers from the classroom. The President called for more charter schools, and for states with caps on charter schools to remove them. The President said:

    “Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us. The relative decline of American education is untenable in our economy, unsustainable for our democracy, and unacceptable for our children. We cannot afford to let it continue. What is at stake is nothing less than the American dream.”

  7. The NCES gives figures which both include capital spending and debt service and also numbers for Current Expenditures which I define above. Even if one includes capital expenditure with these numbers Arizona was 47th in spending in that year. Looking at the census bureau numbers for that year http://ftp2.census.gov/govs/school/05f33pub.pdf these show Arizona at 46th when all expenditures are calculated. These are even higher than what the JLBC puts it at for this year when one included capital outlays.

    Again, we can use Current Expenditures per pupil or Total expenditures per pupil and, surprise, we get different numbers because Total expenditures count things that Current Expenditures don’t (like Gross Income and Adjusted Gross Income). Current Expenditures are more sound as I have stated above but in the end the fact remains you are criticizing AZ government and the NEA, EducationWeek, etc., etc for using Current Expenditures rather than Total Expenditures. Also Dr. Scafidi in Georgia is using Current Expenditures adjusted for cost of living and this is why his numbers don’t match yours. Fine. Arizona is clearly reporting both numbers to the Federal government as the link to the NCES demonstrates so claims about undercounting are invalid. Furthermore, using either number and comparing like to like, AZ still place at the bottom in per-pupil spending which is what this exercise is truly about.

    This provides even more evidence that Arizona is not in anyway in the middle of school spending among states. I hope to see your retraction soon.

  8. Matthew Ladner


    The Texas reporting system gave the total expenditure per pupil in 2004-05 at $8,916:


    The national number reported to the Digest of Education statistics for that same year was $8,891:


    That’s a difference of $25 per student, rather than thousands of dollars per student.

  9. Yes, lets look at Texas. What number does Texas use in reporting its per pupil expenditures. It certainly does not use the $10,162 it uses the $7,826 number which excluded capital outlay and debt service – Just Like Arizona does. And when comparing states everyone excludes these costs as well. Thank you for proving my point. Now when are you going to retract you claim that Arizona is in the middle of states when it comes to per pupil funding?

    If it would help you in your job let’s lobby for Arizona DOE to get funding to put all the information online like Texas has. I would sign your petition.

    You have not addressed my points about the fact that including capital outlays wholly as student expenditures is not sound.

    BTW,Perhaps you are correct that renting is cheaper than building, I was not stating it was or was not, but you must realize my point is that the information you cite does not in anyway show this and this applies to the whole technique of calculating per pupil spending you are advocating. If you feel the state renting space would save that much money please advocate for it. I would like to see this debated and backed up with actual figures.

  10. Matthew Ladner


    Here’s an example for you. Scroll all the way down to the bottom, and you’ll see that the state of Texas confesses to a total expenditure per pupil of over $10k per pupil, and then breaks it down into various categories, including debt service. This is the level of transparency we ought to have here in Arizona:


    I’m not an accountant, but my sense of things is that borrowing for construction would show up in the revenue per pupil figure, but not in the expenditure per pupil figure. Notice that the overall difference between revenue per pupil and expenditure per pupil is only a few hundred dollars in Arizona. Debt service would appear in the expenditure figure, as it should, but would drip out over the life of the debt as you desire.

    Renting a building is less expensive than building them, so, I would say: why not have school districts rent more space? School districts are authorized to open their own charter schools. The alternative seems to be to have the state pile up $450m a year in additional debt.

  11. Mr Ladner,
    I find your answer quite less than satisfactory.

    Some states may count different things at the margins of costs, but states do not include capital outlays and debt service in their figures. To suggest that Arizona is somehow hiding costs in the way it calculates per pupil spending is incorrect because it overlooks that 1) there is in fact a general standard on how to calculate per pupil expenditures and 2) calculating them the way you suggest actually obfuscates school spending.

    If we look at how states calculate this number they do in fact follow a general formula. Lets look at Indiana. Here we can find a graph which shows Expense per pupil

    One will note at the bottom the statement “Current Expenditure is as defined by the Federal Government and does not include capital outlay or debt service.” Current Expenditures do in fact have a standard meaning and this is why states, including Arizona, calculate them by excluding capital outlay and debt servicing. This is how the US Department of Education defines the relevant terms:

    **Current expenditures (elementary/secondary)**

    *The expenditures for operating local public schools, excluding capital outlay and interest on school debt. These expenditures include such items as salaries for school personnel, fixed charges, student transportation, school books and materials, and energy costs.*

    **Current expenditures per pupil in average daily attendance**

    *Current expenditures for the regular school term divided by the ADA of full-time pupils (or full-time equivalency of pupils) during the term.*

    I have been unable to find a single state which does not calculate per pupil spending following this basic understanding which excludes capital outlay and debt service. To add these into current expenditures for Arizona schools and then compare them to other states which do not, is precisely what you have done in your “fact sheet” on Arizona school spending in which you state – “When all of Arizona’s funding streams are added up, Arizona school funding ranks in the middle of the states…” I would hope you would retract this claim as even you admit you do not have the data to support it and we have had public officials use this claim to justify further cuts in Arizona school spending.

    Your continued insistence that capital outlays (new school construction) and debt servicing (previous borrowing for new school construction) be included wholesale in yearly per pupil spending figures, not only differs from how the DOE and everyone else calculates these numbers but also violates basic accounting principles when looking at capital expenditures. Anyone is business or accounting knows that capital expenditures are always amortized over the expected life of the capital asset since the value of the capital asset is not “consumed” in a single year. I understand your ideological desire to add these capital costs into per-pupil revenues, but what I think is a real scandal is that the JLBC would actually publish a document adding in new school construction costs and claiming this are per-pupil expenditures when they must understand this is an abuse of the term since these expenditures are in fact for all pupils over the life of schools.

    Your argument that cutting construction costs through utilizing more charter schools demonstrates exactly the flaw in your argument. The result of yearly rent a charter school pays is consumed in that year and is therefore a true yearly expenditure. The expense of building a new school (in the districts that are growing) is consumed over the life of that school. If you wish to claim that charter schools renting pre-existing buildings is less expensive than building new schools you cannot compare the cost of one year of rent with the one year, one time cost of building a new school which is what you are implicitly doing in your statement. The only way to make this case is to compare the cost of building and maintaining the schools over the expected lifetime of the building(s) (let’s say 40 years) and the cost of renting space for the same number of children served over the same period.

    In other words, yeah, renting a building for one year is less expensive than the one year cost of building a new building, so?

    If you and the JLBC actually want to be honest here you need to amortize the costs over the lifetime of the schools being built to get to a useful number. I suspect this is not an easy task but the solution is not to simply dump all the new school funding as expenses in the current year and claim this is being spent on current students. That is simply not true.

  12. sheapenny, your grasp of the English language is frankly terrible. I counted five sins against the English language in your very first sentence. From your lack of English language skills, I must conclude that you are an illegal alien. Please leave our country you freeloader.

  13. Matthew Ladner


    I don’t agree with your point about illegal immigrants throw off everything. After a decade of reform, Florida has their free and reduced lunch eligible Hispanics outscoring the statewide average for all students in Arizona (and a number of other states) on the Nation’s Report Card 4th grade reading exam. Florida’s African Americans are closing in on the Arizona statewide average as well:


    While it is true that Arizona has a relatively difficult K-12 profile, other states have faced similar difficulties and have overcome them. Minority students now comprise a majority of Arizona K-12 students and if we don’t figure out how to do a much better job in educating them then Arizona will become part of what one demographer described as “the Appalachia of the 21st Century.”

  14. I forgot to include Davids point comparing Arizona to Georgia; Both Arizona and Georgia have large numbers of Illegal Immigrants children in there Public School Systems and have blurred alot of stats.
    As Phoenix is the hub for the cartels and kidnappings and beheadings as number (2) Two in the World behing Mexico City with the workers and there families who live with-in the hispanic communtity for cover so is Atlanta the Eastern Hub for the Mexican Cartels as they move there families into hispanic communities for cover.
    Comrade Obama as he opens up the Border in the near future as he is opening up barriers with Cuba and Venezuela with not only Educational paradies but social and economic tracks that will align The United States Federal Government with there agenda , we as Citizens of The States must decide just how far we are ready to go down the path to complete Socialistic control over our lives,education,heathcare,and economy.
    The States created the Federal Government as written by the Constitutional Congress granting LIMITED POWERS to the Federal Government not the broad powers now being clawed back from the States to a few in Washington.
    I would like to see the “D” and “R” after each representatives name removed and a REAL CHANGE for our House of Representatives being elected as are all City Council Members in Arizona except in Tucson as “Non Partisan” representatives Elected to work for you and me the taxpayer NOT the Party and the “D’ and “R’ after there respective names!
    Fixing Potholes and our Education System is not the job of partisan politics and I hope Comrade Obama addresses that today!

  15. Instead of arguing over cost per pupil in Arizona why don’t you try to work together and improve the quality of education in this state! At least, I’m doing something about it. I volunteer 10 hours a week at the Dunham Elementary school in TUSD teaching organized recess. That’s right, organized
    recess so the kids can get a much needed break from class and improve their physical fitness. I’m also working on a statewide mandate for 30 minutes/day recess for all elementary schools in Arizona. At last, we have a non-partisan issue that benefits every child in this state!

  16. Putting the political issue of illegal immigration and the cost of educating there children in our public schools aside; the States and Counties DO NOT ASK if a child is illegal.
    This throws off everything David as you point out; from the cost per student according to the actual property tax rolls to an inflated student roll and a deflated educational value for all students.
    Today Comrade Obama will adress Education but KEEP no child left behind as you know is a failed program.
    The Comrade keeps supporting agencies and programs that have had a history of failure while pontificating Hope and Change!
    Our family has a history of Union Members in all fields; I support GOOD UNIONS but feel just as the United Auto Workers Union has destroyed General Motors so has the Teachers Union destroyed our Public School System with tenure with no accountability for the Teacher not supporting educational values but instead the Union!

  17. Matthew Ladner


    Different states calculate their numbers differently. Some states provide comprehensive numbers, and some states exclude major categories of funding from their figures. Arizona falls into the latter category. Essentially, it looks to me like Arizona has presented their marginal spending per pupil as the total spending per pupil. Someone may want to try to dig into the financial reports of all 50 states to try to figure out who is providing reliable numbers and who isn’t, but it is a task for Hercules that I haven’t seen anyone take on.

    I don’t think the exercise of ranking the states is a very informative due to the unreliability of the numbers. It’s basically an exercise in issue framing, with multiple states claiming to be 49th. Within Arizona, district schools receive over $9k in revenue per pupil, while charters receive $7,800 (minus some lunch money as an appropirate bow to Mr. Safier’s sensibilities).

    As to construction, debt service, etc. you can’t have it both ways by spending the money but then not counting it. If you want to find ways to get more dollars into the classroom, cutting down on construction cost is desirable. Nevada’s debt service per student and capital outlay costs per student are twice as high as Arizona’s, and one reason for that is that Arizona has 463 charter schools while Nevada has something like 22.

  18. David Safier

    Mr. Ladner.

    I think todd’s figures about the Georgia vs. Arizona’s costs per student deserve a reply. Remember, I admit I don’t know the numbers. It sounds like todd does.

  19. Mr Ladner –
    Could you please explain why Georgia does not calculate per pupil spending as you propose Arizona should. Also, could you list the other states which calculate per pupil spending as you think Arizona should. That would be helpful.

    If Georgia and other states do not calculate this number as you believe they should perhaps it is because they have realized it is erroneous to include the entire costs of building a school which may last 40 years in the spending per pupil for the year it was built. The building of the new school continues to have value even after the year in which it was built so one would clearly wish to amortize in accounting terms. To add insult to injury, you then wish to add debt service costs on top of that.

    This is a similar error to what some members of the Heritage Foundation did recently in trying to claim GM unionized autoworkers earned $75/hour in wages and benefits. Of course this was a bogus claim as in fact was shown because Heritage had added in both current employees wage and benefits plus all benefits and pension costs for retired workers and then divided by the total numbers of hours worked in a year. They were calculating labor costs not the actual cost of benefits and hourly wages for current workers.

  20. Matthew Ladner

    Mr. Safier-

    So I am to understand that you feel justified living in denial unless I can convince a Benjamin Scafidi from Georgia that the official spending statistics from Arizona are not accurate?

  21. David – you might find this helpful

    Anyway, so I was curious how GA was determining their costs. I found the following sheet (looking at Revenue Report for 2008) which displays costs per pupil for 2008. It lists all districts but totals are listed at the bottom (however it is interesting to see how widely the per pupil spending varies per district)

    This gives a total of $9119 per student when looking at Revenue per FTE pupil.

    If we then look at the JLBC number:

    We see AZ with a per student for 2008 of $9519.

    However, looking more carefully, the GA report notes some funds excluded from their revenue report at the bottom of the page. Among these are :
    Debt Service Fund
    Capital Projects Fund
    Adult Education
    School Nutrition Service Fund

    I am not sure how much Adult Ed, Headstart and School Nutrition figures into the JLBC numbers, but I do see that funds for school construction, improvement and debt service amount to a significant portion of revenues. If we remove these costs we are left with the true maintenance and budget costs found here http://www.azleg.gov/jlbc/mofunding.pdf which lists per student spending at $6536.

    It seems quite clear that in the comparison being made, the $9119 for GA and $6536 for AZ seem more appropriate since they seem to be recording the same thing.

  22. David Safier

    Mr. Ladner.

    I’ll tell you what. Georgia may be far away from Arizona geographically, but Benjamin Scafidi is your next door neighbor, ideologically speaking. Shoot him off an email. Correct the error of his ways, and have him publish something that shows he agrees with you, or at least have him send you an email you can show to the rest of us. That should be far easier than trying to convince a non-Friedmanite like me.

    But I have a feeling he won’t listen to your “reason.” He likes his figures, because they reinforce his ideas. You like your figures because they reinforce yours.

    If conservative school choice promoters across the nation use different numbers to reach the conclusions they want, that says to me that your numbers aren’t as hard and fast as you say they are.

  23. Matthew Ladner

    Mr. Safier-

    This is really an odd argument. The ADE puts out lowball numbers as official statistics, which are used by the National Center for Education Statistics and widely repeated. Even by people in far away Georgia, who naturally rely on the given statistics rather than dig into the gory details of all 50 states.

    You on the other hand ought not to repeat such errors because you now know better. Your anger would be better directed towards those who have had you duped on this subject for so long.

    Or perhaps like Joe Pantoliano’s character in the Matrix you are more comfortable strapped to your illusion. If so, sorry, but you’ve been jettisoned out into the sewer and will have to face the reality of eating amino acid oatmeal every day.

  24. How about…they spend to damn much. That about sums it up.