In True Cost of Public Education we shared highlights from Adam Schaeffer’s Cato Policy Analysis “They Spend WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools.” In it he explains how spending figures provided by public school officials and reported in the media often leave out major costs of education and thus understate what is actually spent.

Below we share a few snippets from How Much Do Public Schools Spend on Teaching? by Michael Barba, May 12, 2011, National Center for Policy Analysis which discusses the problem of inaccurate and deceptive reporting of instructional spending – teacher and staff salaries, extracurricular activities such as sports or clubs, and classroom supplies – and how often what is reported as “Instructional Spending” is often unrelated to the classroom.  The full Analysis is available to read in full Here.

Without an accurate picture of what our education tax dollars are really being spent on taxpayers and parents cannot hold politicians and education administrators accountable.  We cannot judge a program’s productivity with faulty numbers.  Accurate accounting is imperative to know how much bang are we getting for our education tax bucks.

Public education now costs federal, state and local governments upward of $500 billion annually. This total is up from $354 billion 15 years ago and currently represents the largest state and local government expenditure. While spending increased nearly 50 percent, enrollment increased by just over 10 percent, reading and science scores held steady and on-time graduation hovered at 70 percent.

While schools annually spend an average of about $10,000 per student, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that only 60 percent of these expenditures are instructional. Instructional spending includes teacher and staff salaries, extracurricular activities such as sports or clubs, and classroom supplies. However, instructional expenses are often unrelated to the classroom. In Texas, for example, vehicle, equipment and computer maintenance, as well as food service, property insurance and refreshments for meetings are considered instructional expenditures.

Even if instructional expenses were clearly defined, lengthy regulations make it nearly impossible to determine how much money actually ends up in the classroom. For example, California mandates an instructional spending level of 85 percent of the total, but exceptions in the education code allow certain funds to be diverted to nearly any program administrators see fit.  Such ineffective mandates make it impossible for teachers, parents and legislators to understand what share of tax dollars reach the classroom.

While the NCES reports that instruction is 60 percent of expenditures in the 100 largest districts, a closer analysis reveals that the instructional category only takes an average of 51 percent. The discrepancy arises because the percent of instructional spending is calculated after excluding capital expenditures — including land purchases, construction projects and long-term debt payments — and other spending, such as for leased equipment and adult education. Excluding these expenditures allows districts to report spending a higher percentage on instruction.

Instead of cutting dollars spent in the classroom, state legislators should require clear accounting for how education tax dollars are spent, cap noninstructional expenditures as a percentage of spending and limit the growth of spending outside the classroom.

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