Academic journal article Education Next

Breaking Down School Budgets: Following the Dollars into the Classroom

Academic journal article Education Next

Breaking Down School Budgets: Following the Dollars into the Classroom

Article excerpt

How much does it cost to provide a high school math course?

What about remedial English? An Advanced Placement (AP) course in history? As the economic outlook continues to darken, school districts will be looking for ways to cut costs, and they will no doubt wrestle with some difficult issues. When does it make sense to keep classes small? When does it make sense to increase class sizes to cut costs? Such debates are often carried out in the absence of information about what actually happens in schools or what the options might be for reallocating scarce resources.

School districts produce reams of financial data to check off the right boxes on accounting and compliance reports required by states and the federal government. Typically missing is any financial analysis that follows the money into the school building to the classroom. Yet the classroom is where the mission-critical work happens and where the conversion of resources into services affects student performance. Educators need indicators that tell them whether the basic design and operation of their high schools direct resources in ways that sustain and enhance the district's academic strategies and priorities. Academic outcomes are one such indicator. A measure of spending that enables comparison across service areas is another.

Computing spending patterns is not difficult. Per-pupil service expenditures can easily be determined at the classroom level. This analysis computes and reports spending on various services for high schools in three anonymous districts. The findings reveal the ways in which per-pupil spending varies by subject and course level.

While the findings are not intended to be suggestive of all districts in the country, the work does demonstrate how such fiscal metrics can reveal the financial implications of the inner workings of individual high schools. How much does a high school pay to offer electives, and how does that compare to what is spent on core subject courses? What are the cost implications of decisions regarding the structure of the school schedule, which courses to offer, and who teaches what course?

The findings presented in this article demonstrate how isolating spending on discrete services can 1) identify the relationships between priorities, current spending, and outcomes; 2) clarify both relative spending on discrete services and the organizational practices that influence how resources are deployed; and 3) establish the current cost of providing high school services as a necessary precursor to identifying whether there are better ways to provide some services.

Spending on Services

The spending-on-services approach to cost analysis aims to inform strategic resource decisionmaking by zeroing in on what is provided. This approach breaks out per-pupil expenditures by the discrete services students receive. This service-costing method is most appropriately categorized as a management tool, to be used on a periodic basis, rather than a new accounting system requiring continuous and extensive record keeping.

Service costing is not a wholly unexplored idea. In 1996, analyst David Monk and associates determined per-pupil expenditures for various courses in six high schools in four New York districts. They calculated per-course spending using actual teacher and aide salaries, course schedules, and course enrollments. These calculations indicated that the highest per-pupil course expenditures were associated with foreign language, music, and science instruction (excluding special education costs).

In 1999, Jay Chambers of the American Institutes for Research merged unique state-level databases containing information on teacher salaries, teacher course assignments, and course enrollment data to calculate per-pupil expenditures by course for students in Ohio. The results indicated wide variation in spending by course, with some elective courses--including Latin, AP Spanish, and drafting--costing twice as much on a per-pupil basis as algebra, literature, and composition. …

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