Current Spending Per Pupil for Public Elementary-Secondary School Systems for Fiscal Years 1992–2011. Graphic: U.S. Census Bureau

By Allison Linn
26 May 2013

(TODAY) – The amount of money spent per public school student fell in 2011 for the first time since the Census Bureau began keeping records more than three decades earlier, as economic woes finally caught up with educational realities.

“This is clearly the fallout from the Great Recession,” said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. 

The recession officially ran from December 2007 to June of 2009, but experts say there was some lag time before things like the housing bust began really hurting tax revenues, in turn crimping state and local budgets.

In addition, the federal government’s economic stimulus plan helped offset some of the initial tax revenue drops, so it took some time before state and local lawmakers had to tackle one of the least popular options: Cutting education funding.

“They tried to insulate education spending as best they could … but you just can’t protect it 100 percent,’ said Mike Griffith, school finance consultant for the Education Commission of the States, which provides data and analysis for state education systems.

Both liberal and conservative education policy experts agree that the drop was driven more by harsh economic realities rather than ideological preferences.

“It’s a tax issue at this point,” said Kim Rueben, a senior fellow with the Tax Policy Center and an expert on the economics of education.

The 50 states and Washington, D.C. spent $10,560 per student in 2011, according to the most recent Census data, a less than 1 percent drop from 2010. Though tiny, it marked the first drop in per-pupil spending since the Census Bureau began collecting annual data in 1977.

Overall, public elementary and secondary school systems spent $595.1 billion in 2011, down 1.1 percent from 2010. It was the second year in a row that total expenditures fell. The data is not adjusted for inflation. […]

School districts have dealt with recessions before, but in the past Griffith said wealthier areas were often able to offset tax revenue cuts by passing levies or coming up with other funding options for schools. That meant that across the nation, spending per student has historically continued to rise even if certain districts saw spending fall.

This time, he said, so many districts were forced to make cuts that the national numbers finally reflected the hit. Nevertheless, some of the nation’s wealthiest areas were still likely able to maintain strong funding, potentially exacerbating the gap between rich and poor districts.

“The wealthy districts can go to the voters,” Griffith said. “The poorer communities aren’t able to do that.” [more]

Recession's fallout: Spending per student falls for first time ever



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