$20,502 per pupil

Boston spends an average of $20,502 per student on the students educated within BPS. This makes it the biggest per pupil spender among the largest 100 U.S. districts.

Last month, the Census Bureau released its report on public school finance for 2013. Included in the report was per pupil spending for the 100 largest U.S. school districts. By enrollment, Boston is the country’s 74th-largest district. By per pupil spending, Boston is #1 at $20,502.

Boston is not just the leader in per pupil spending; it is also an outlier. Only Boston and New York spend more than $20,000 per pupil; none of the other 98 districts spends more than $15,500.

The Census Bureau’s figure ($20,502 per student) has been met by some confusion and skepticism in Boston. Some commentators seem to believe that since $20,502 is an average, it doesn’t accurately portray the cost of educating most BPS students. One critic put the idea succinctly: “BPS does not pay $20,000 for my Gen Ed kid who doesn’t take a bus.”

That may be true, but it isn’t the point. The point is this: BPS spends an average of $20,502 for each student in BPS. That doesn’t include funds spent on charter school students, students in out-of-district special education schools, or students in the METCO program. For every student attending a BPS school, BPS spends an average of $20,502. Individual students may cost more or less, but on average, that is the cost.

Those questioning the $20,502 figure argue that it doesn’t accurately reflect BPS spending on BPS students because it also includes money paid to non-district schools, like charters and special education schools, that take former BPS students. According to the same commentator from above, “18%” of the $20,502 goes straight to charters.

Reading the Census Report, this is clearly untrue. To calculate per pupil spending, the Census Bureau divided “current spending” by enrollment in district schools. “Current spending” includes operations expenditures (what the district spends toward the day-to-day education of in-district students, including salaries and benefits), state pension payments, and district retirement funds. It does not include “payments to other school systems,” such as money sent to charters. Per pupil spending, as calculated by the Census Bureau, only counts money spent to educate in-district students. None of the $20,502 per student goes to charters. It’s all spent in the district.

Nor is testing driving up the per pupil spending. PARCC tests cost less than $30 per student, which amounts to 0.1% of $20,502 per student. That’s little more than rounding error.

Commentators make the valid point that it costs different amounts to educate different kids. It takes less money to educate a child who walks to school compared to one who takes a bus. Some children need special programs to get the education they need and deserve. However, this doesn’t discredit the fact that Boston spends an average of $20,502 per BPS student. The point is not that any randomly-selected student will cost BPS $20,502 to educate, nor that BPS would save $20,502 if that student were to leave. 

There is some confusion about why the Census Bureau’s per pupil spending figure differs from the figure used by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  The per pupil spending reported by DESE for Boston Public Schools in 2013 is significantly lower: $17,598 per student. So why the discrepancy?

At a high level, the major difference is that DESE counts money sent to out-of-district schools (such as charter schools) and counts students attending those out-of-district schools.

The Census Bureau’s number gives us the average amount of money Boston spent  to educate students within BPS in 2013. DESE’s number divides BPS’s operating expenditures—not the city’s total education spending—by the number of students both in BPS and sent outside of BPS. According to DESE, per pupil expenditures are:

“Calculated by dividing all of district's operating expenditures by its average pupil membership. All of a district's expenditures from all funding sources are included, with one exception--capital costs such as purchase of buildings are not counted. Average pupil membership includes all students who receive services in the district's schools, as well as those who are tuitioned to out-of-district settings such as special education schools, charter schools, or other school districts.”

So contrary to criticism, the Census Bureau’s number is higher not because it includes charter kids, but because it doesn’t.

Critics have also argued that the Census Bureau’s $20,502 per pupil figure is “meaningless” because it does not take into account regional differences, proportions of high need populations, and other factors that would drive differences in spending between school districts.

First off, the Census Bureau actually does account for differences between districts in terms of what is classified as school spending. As explained above, that’s why the Census Bureau uses its “current spending” figure to include all money spent on students in the district, not just money spent directly by the district (which is how DESE does it).

Other criticisms—dealing with high-needs populations, regional cost of living, etc.—are simply red herrings, distracting from the reality of $20,502 per student in Boston. Other urban districts have high-need populations, yet Boston spends substantially more than they do, and Boston’s cost of living is not 30% or 40% higher than other cities. The $20,502 figure does not argue that Boston spends most inefficiently (in fact, it doesn’t argue anything). It’s just a figure that tells us how much Boston spends to educate BPS students and allows a comparison to other districts across the country.

The takeaway is simple. Boston spends an average of $20,502 per student on the students educated within BPS. This makes it the biggest per pupil spender among the largest 100 U.S. districts.

Neither DESE nor the Census Bureau is wrong—they just use different mathematical formulas, and the Census Bureau’s formula is more helpful to compare Boston with national peers. Over $1 billion is budgeted for BPS in FY16. While  even more money is needed to give Boston students the education they deserve, policy-makers should keep in mind that more money will not yield better results unless it is spent well and coupled with reform. Those who deny Boston’s outsized per pupil spending are failing to see the forest for the trees.