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Huge Disparity in Per-Pupil Spending in Washington-Area Schools, Report Shows

CORRECTED

District Heights Elementary School in Prince George's County, Md., is a 16-minute drive from Moten Elementary School in the District of Columbia.

The schools serve similar populations—with 77 and 76 percent of their students, respectively, qualifying for the federal subsided meals program. Yet, the amount spent per pupil in District Heights in the 2011-12 school year was $7,891 while it was $14,723 at Moten Elementary.

Just seven miles apart, students attending those two schools can have vastly different school experiences.

This disparity in spending between two schools in different districts—and often among schools within the same district—are among the stark findings in a report and data trove released Wednesday by the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

"If a low-income mom moves from the District of Columbia to Prince George's County, and her child attends high-poverty public schools in both locales, her child's new school will have dramatically lower-paid (and/or less experienced) teachers, fewer special programs, fewer specialists, larger class sizes, or all of the above,"  Michael J. Petrilli, president of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Matt Richmond, a research analyst at the institute, wrote in an article accompanying the data sets.

The school-level, per-pupil spending data in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area were released with an accompanying interactive website, which allows users to compare per-pupil spending in the region by county, by school and by student population type.

The report covered spending—not including expenditures on capital projects—during the 2011-12 school year in Alexandria City, Arlington, Falls Church, Fairfax County and City in Virginia; Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland; and charter and district schools in the District of Columbia.

Arlington County spent the most per pupil on its high-poverty students—between $17,604 and $18,827—though those students appeared concentrated in only two schools, where 75 percent or more of the students were eligible to receive free and reduced-price meals.

On the lower end of the spectrum, Prince George's County (where 50 schools fit Fordham's definition of high poverty) spent between $7,981 and $16,493 per student in its highest need schools. Average spending per pupil in high-poverty schools in Prince George's County was $10,607, according to the report.

The District of Columbia's regular public schools fell somewhere in the middle of the pack, with average spending per high-poverty school at $14,497.

What explains the wild variations in spending, both between districts and among schools in the same districts?

Personnel expenditures tend to be the highest cost-driver in districts, according to Fordham. Then there is teacher placement—some districts have salary guides that award increases based on experience and educational degrees; district policies that determine where teachers are assigned; the type of students being served at specific schools; and the size of the school.

Fordham acknowledged that school-level spending is "deceptively, and frustratingly difficult" to calculate.  How much schools spend also seems to depend on how much the schools and districts have available to spend.

The highest spending primary schools were dispersed throughout the District of Columbia, Prince George's County, Alexandria City and Arlington, according to Fordham.  What they had in common was that all but one was eligible to receive Title I funds (federal monies for disadvantaged students), they served a high percentage of students with special needs—more than 20 percent—and were relatively small.

The lowest spending schools, both primary and secondary, were located in Prince George's County. In those schools, student enrollment was larger than the region's average— indicating that there may be savings from economies of scale—they did not receive Title I funds, and they had relatively low special education enrollment. In primary schools, the special education enrollment was less than 10 percent.

Regionally, elementary schools tended to spend less per pupil than secondary schools, and those elementary schools with lower average per pupil spending also generally did not receive Title I funds.

Overall, the District  of Columbia's public charter schools had the highest per-pupil spending—$18,150—followed by the district's traditional public schools, at $15,743; Arlington at $15,599; and Alexandria City at $15,044. Prince George's County, where 62 percent of the student population qualify for subsidized meals spent $10,408 per student, according to Fordham. Montgomery County spent $12,649.

Even within districts though, disparities were apparent. In Tuckahoe Elementary School in Arlington, for example, per-pupil spending was $11,310, while it was $19,913 at Hoffman-Boston Elementary School.

In Prince George's County, school spending ranged from $7,700 at the 783-student Barack Obama Elementary School, where 36 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-priced meals, to $24,042 at the 179-student Judith P. Hoyer Montessori Elementary School.

Even then, the schools with the highest per-pupil spending in the county served students with special populations—early childhood centers, special education and alternative schools.

Two reasons may explain the low spending in Prince George's County, according to the authors. One is size: the district is larger, with 191 district schools with an average enrollment of 628 students per school in comparison to Washington D.C., which has 120 schools and 365 students on average per school. The second reason is that Prince George's County simply has less money to spread around.

Just looking at the numbers can also prove deceptive, the data show.  The District of Columbia's charters generally spent the most per pupil, but they also served a higher share of the city's special education population and had more students who were eligible for federal subsidized meal programs than the city's regular public schools, according to Fordham.

St. Coletta Special Education Charter School, for example, spent $94,565 per pupil for 234 students, but as the name suggests the charter school focuses on students with severe disabilities, including intellectual disabilities and autism and it also serves students from around the region. A more traditional charter school, Washington Latin Public Charter School—one of the city's highest performing schools—spent $13,183 per pupil.

The authors do not make any commentary on whether the level of spending is good or bad or make any inferences to student outcomes. You can peruse the nifty, data-rich website here.

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