Florida reveals how much each public school spends per student — and there are stark differences

By: - August 16, 2019 7:00 am

School entrance sign. Photo, CD Davidson-Hiers

In the Little Haiti neighborhood, Miami Edison Senior High School spends $12,348 per pupil on its mostly low-income black students.

Three miles away, Miami Jackson Senior High School spends $8,578 at the majority Hispanic school, which has a larger enrollment and more students who are poor.

The difference in spending at the two Miami schools isn’t an anomaly — it’s already showing up in public schools across Florida, state data show.

And other states have begun rolling out school-by-school spending data that’s now being required by federal education law, revealing how much individual schools are spending per student.

In the past, school districts usually tracked spending at the district level, but that didn’t tell the whole story, raising questions about whether individual schools have been getting their fair share.

School finance experts say that spending at individual schools can impact everything from who gets more experienced teachers, guidance counselors and social workers to which schools have specialty academic programs, advanced course offering and adequate books and supplies. School buildings are impacted as well, to keep up with maintenance and repairs.

The Florida Department of Education has released spending figures – called per-pupil expenditures – for more than 3,600 public schools, based on 2017-18 school finance data.

Families and taxpayers can find the data on Florida’s 2018-19 School Report Card, a conglomeration of education information providing a broad picture of schools. To see the financial data, click on the category of “per-pupil expenditures.”

The spending data posted online is likely to be an eye-opener.

Districts of all stripes likely will feel a big impact from a small provision on financial transparency tucked in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Starting in the 2018-19 school year, the provision promises to illuminate school-level financial data that could raise thorny questions for communities across the country around who gets what resources and why,” wrote Marguerite Roza, a key co-author in a December 2017 article about school finance changes and how district administrators will cope.

Roza is a research professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and director of the university’s Edunomics Lab, a research center on education finance.

The new per-pupil data for individual schools could potentially unmask “patterns of fiscal inequities among schools and students in the same district,” Roza wrote, as well as make it “much easier to investigate (and understand) the relationship between school academic outcomes and school spending.”

Julie Rowland Woods is a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit organization that tracks education policy nationwide.

She said the new spending data is “certainly something policy makers should be paying attention to,” and that people looking at the data – families, educators, taxpayers and others – need “some kind of context.”

All the numbers “can easily be taken out of context,” Woods said.

The Florida Phoenix was able to see some patterns and numerous differences in per-pupil spending at schools because the state also provided a lengthy spreadsheet listing all per-pupil amounts by school.

In the Collier County school district, Gulf Coast High School in Naples spends $7,431 per student while Barron Collier High School, also in Naples, spends $8,574 –  a difference of more than $1,000 per student.

Collier County’s Everglades City School, with data showing only 176 students, spends $17,473 per student — far more than other schools in the district.

Collier schools, as well as the Miami-Dade school district, did not provide comments by the Phoenix’s deadline on Thursday afternoon. On Friday, officials in both districts considered the deadline tight.

The Collier district on Friday responded to the per-pupil spending examples. The Everglades City School is a small school in a remote location, said Robert Spencer, the assistant superintendent for financial services. Per-pupil spending is high because school costs are spread over a lower number of students, he said.

The Phoenix asked if the district would consider consolidating the small school into another school, which could save on costs, and the answer was no.

“We won’t even entertain that option,” said Chad Oliver, the executive director of communications and community engagement in the Collier district. He said the small school is “the fabric of that community.”

As to the difference in per-pupil spending between Gulf Coast High School and Barron Collier High School, Spencer said that in general, there are different teachers making different salaries at the schools.

School finance experts say that salaries can make a big difference in the per-pupil calculations, particularly if one school has experienced teachers who make high salaries and another school has beginning teachers who get less pay.

In Alachua County schools, W.A. Metcalfe Elementary School in Gainesville spends $13,732, more that most other schools in the district.

The predominantly black school has just over 200 students, all low-income, state data show.

The per-pupil spending amount is due in part to the low-income population – the school gets federal dollars for those disadvantaged students, said Alex Rella, assistant superintendent for business services. (Money for schools comes from local, state and federal dollars.)

“We put a great deal of additional resources (into Metcalfe) based on the makeup of the school body,” Rella said.

The size of the school, the experience of teachers – more years of experience leads to higher salaries – and programs at specific schools – are factors that go into determining per-pupil spending, Rella said.

Roza, the Georgetown professor, told the Phoenix in an interview that there are “infinite factors” that go into why certain schools get more – or less – money per student.

Unlike Metcalfe’s high per-pupil spending, some low-income schools are low-spenders, Roza said.

A school also might have low per-pupil spending because the teachers are less experienced and get less money than veteran teachers, Roza said.

In other cases, low-spending schools can have high academic achievement.

Those are issues that school boards, administrators, families and taxpayers should be examining, Roza said.

The Phoenix found that schools had a wide range of per-pupil figures in each district.

And the state also included non-traditional schools in the mix, such as so-called alternative schools for students with behavioral or discipline problems.

Those alternatives schools tend to have very high per-pupil expenditures, the data show.  At the A. Quinn Jones Center, an alternative school in Gainesville, the per-pupil figure is $36,236.

The data also included high per-pupil figures for home-based programs for students in medical care, and special education schools.

The state uses a formula for per-pupil spending, which includes expenses for instruction, materials and supplies, student support services, school administration, and operation and maintenance, among other costs.

Based on the state’s data, and including non-traditional schools, the average per-pupil spending across Florida was about $9,500 in 2017-18 — higher than other estimates the state has used.

But that figure is close to national figures on per-pupil spending.

Based on U.S. Census data for 2017, Florida’s per-pupil spending amount, on average, was $9,075.

That figure is low according to other states. Florida ranks 45th of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. in the 2017 analysis.

But now, educators, families and taxpayers will be able to go beyond the state average and see how individual schools fare when it comes to per-pupil spending.

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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.