Missing Numbers: Public Gets a Distorted Picture of School Spending
Lil Tuttle, Education Director
Originally published on February 25, 2002
in the Richmond Times-Disptach
Here's a test question that directly affects your wallet: Estimate the amount that was spent, on average, for each Virginia classroom of 30 children in the 1999-2000 school year. Was it (a) $50,000; (b) $100,000; (c) $200,000; or (d) $250,000? Proponents of tax increases are betting that you don't know the answer. They hope you believe the teachers unions' ads that claim Virginia's public schools are " grossly underfunded. "
" Schools are a big business, " a recent Times-Dispatch story noted.
" Someone's got to pay for them. " Taxpayers already are.
Total spending for public schools in Virginia almost doubled in the past decade, according to Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) data, rising from $5,470,808,929 in 1989-90 to $9,469,899,452 in 1999-2000.
Sixteen school divisions - six in Northern Virginia - topped the $10,000 per-pupil-spending mark that year. The highest spender - Arlington County - spent more per student ($14,475) than the published tuition price of Burgundy Farm Country Day School ($14,225), the private school Governor Warner's children attend.
Current-year estimates by Times Dispatch reporters indicate that Richmond City has joined the $10,000-plus spending club. At $10,419 per student, Richmond taxpayers pay more to educate students in public schools than the price of tuition at Collegiate ($10,200), Riverside ($10,400), St. Catherine's ($9,475), St. Christopher's ($9,275), and Stewart ($9,100).
Northstar, a private school that serves learning disabled, ADHD, dyslexic, and autistic children, charges only $8,757 per student.
INFORMATION on what your public schools spend should be readily available to you. State law requires local districts to report total public school spending in seven major classifications: (1) instruction; (2) administration, attendance, and health; (3) pupil transportation; (4) operation and maintenance; (5) school food services and other noninstructional operations; (6) facilities; and (7) debt and fund transfers. VDOE compiles that data annually.
But total expenditures are rarely reported to the public. In a common but deceptive practice, the state excludes spending for facilities, debt service, summer school, food services, and other education programs when calculating average per-pupil-spending for districts and the state. (These are not insignificant omissions, especially since facilities and debt service are as real a liability to taxpayers as their own mortgage and cred- it-card debt.) As a result, the public is given a distorted picture of public school spending. According to VDOE's 1999-2000 annual report, average spending for Virginia's public schools was $6, 821 per student. However, when total expenditures are used in calculations, average per-pupil-spending for the year jumps to $8, 426, or about a quarter of a million dollars for each classroom of 30 children. (Correct answer to first-paragraph question: [d]) LOCAL SCHOOL districts apparently omit some of their costs in their public reports as well. VDOE data for 1999-2000 show total expenditures of $379.1 million for Chesterfield County and $126.1 million for Hanover County. Yet data provided recently by these districts to Times-Dispatch reporters show current-year spending of only $377.5 million for Chesterfield and $121.3 million for Hanover, even though both districts increased public school spending in each of the past two years.
The public education industry is lobbying the General Assembly for an increase in state sales taxes for public schools. That request is inappropriate and premature. Public school district budgets have become unreadable and their spending reports unreliable. Before consideration is given to tax increases, lawmakers should insist on an honest, standardized, annual public accounting of total spending in all seven classifications by every school district. Citizens have truth in tending in the private sector; they deserve truth in spending from the public sector.
If tax increases do go forward, taxpayers may find school-choice tuition tax credits an attractive alternative to ever-increasing demands on their pocketbooks.
Only a handful of the Richmond area's 60 private schools are as expensive as public schools. Most are small, neighborhood-based schools with tuition rates in the $2, 500 to $4, 500 range. Taxpayers could educate two or three children in many private schools for the cost of educating one child in public schools.
If parents are willing to transfer their children from expensive public schools to less costly private ones, taxpayers should be only too happy to offer them a tax incentive to do so.
Lil Tuttle was a member of the State Board of Education from 1995-99.