You are here


The Price of a Good Education

Do per-pupil expenditures equal school success?

There are plenty of statistics available for measuring the performance, potential and problems of school districts, from standardized test scores to the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Last June, another metric came into sharper focus when the U.S. Census Bureau released its latest state-by-state data on per-pupil expenditures. While the Census Bureau report, which covers the 2007-2008 school year (the latest year for which complete data was available), calculated the national average of per-pupil expenditures at $10,259, it also revealed a widening gulf between individual states.

New York ranked highest, with a rate of $17,173 per student, followed by New Jersey at $16,491. Those amounts dwarfed the $5,765 average in last-place Utah, which came in more than $1,000 behind next-to-last Idaho.

The funding gulfs highlighted in the report raised not just eyebrows but also questions about what well-heeled states are getting for their educational investments and how the have-nots are making do with their limited funds. To hear the superintendents of the largest districts in New York and Utah tell it, they're trying to make the most of the monies they receive.

The districts in both states are showing improvements in struggling schools, branching out into innovative programs, and seeing widespread success on AP exams. And New York and Utah superintendents alike have faced budget crunches in recent years that have caused them to come up with creative ways to make their money go farther.

New York Story

It should come as no surprise, says David Albert, director of communications and research for the New York State School Boards Association, that his state tops the list of per-pupil expenditures. "The cost of living is higher, you have to pay superintendents more to attract talented leaders, and you have to pay teachers more to stay competitive with what other districts are offering," he explains.

Albert adds that regardless of the cost, New York has a long track record of funding its schools. "We don't want to be low on that list. We don't want to live in a state that doesn't invest in education," he says. That investment is borne out, he continues, by the high rate at which voters approve school budgets the first time around—a hefty 97 percent in 2009. "And 2009 was a very challenging year financially," Albert emphasizes.

New Yorkers seem to be getting a good return on that investment in several areas. Albert points to a 2008 College Board statistic showing that New York's students ranked second nationally in passing AP exams and that 84 percent of all students took the SAT, compared to the national average of 45 percent. While the state's largest districts— New York City (1.1 million students), Buffalo (32,732), Rochester (32,132), and Yonkers (24,956)— receive similar perpupil funding, their educational strategies differ in how they spend that money.

Of all three districts, the Yonkers Public Schools, just north of New York City, which spent $19,757 per pupil in 2008- 2009 and $19,516 in 2009-2010, is the only one in good standing under NCLB guidelines, having come off the Needs Improvement list and met the Adequate Yearly Progress level last year, according the New York State Education Department. "We've made a lot of strides in the past five years," says Superintendent Bernard Pierorazio, who says that over the past two years, the district's enrollment has increased by nearly 2,000, many of those students lured back from private and parochial schools. "A lot more parents are buying into the public schools of Yonkers," he says.

Pierorazio's efforts have ranged from expanding early childhood education to bolstering the college readiness of high school students. "We're one of the few districts that offer a full-day pre-kindergarten with a set curriculum. This is where we're investing in the future," he says.

He adds that the pre-K program has grown to 1,650, with a waiting list of 300, and that a large percentage of those students are able to read words by the time they enter kindergarten. In addition, almost 75 percent of Yonkers public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 17 percent are in ESL programs.

Pierorazio has put money into staff development aimed at increasing student literacy. "We looked at the research that says students coming out of high-poverty homes come to the schools with limited language skills," he explains. At the other end of the school-age spectrum, the district pays for sophomores and juniors to take the PSAT.

Yonkers' International Baccalaureate program, which started with 21 participants in 1995, has grown into its own high school, with 1,000 students. And 750 middle school students follow an IB preparatory curriculum. Two years ago, the district opened its College Board Academy, with funds from the Gates Foundation, to make students more college ready and to improve the district's 65 percent graduation rate.

Yonkers has also received help from its educational foundation, Yonkers Partners in Education, which has financed college prep courses for high school students and a college center, with two full-time staff members, at each high school.

Raising Achievement in N.Y.

In Rochester and Buffalo, with $18,594 and $17,004 per-pupil expenditures in 2009-2010, respectively, the focus is falling squarely on more basic student achievement and keeping kids in school. "I have the highest poverty percentage in New York state, 90 percent, so many students come to our schools not ready to learn," says Jean-Claude Brizard, the superintendent of the Rochester City School District, which is in year seven of Needs Improvement under NCLB.

The problem that's kept Rochester in that status has been persistent weakness in the area of English/Language Arts. Since arriving three years ago, Brizard has created the Rochester Leadership Academy for retraining principals and the "Grow Our Own" program for aspiring principals; expanded summer programs to serve 12,000 students with both remedial and enrichment courses; and installed a Positive Behavior Support conflict-resolution program.

In addition, his in-school suspension program—in which suspended students are taught separately—has reduced behavioral incidents and halved the number of student suspensions to 7,000 annually. Rochester's four-year graduation rate, meanwhile, has risen from 39 percent in 2007—the lowest of the state's five largest school districts—to 52 percent in 2010.

Preschool students in the Yonkers (N.Y.) Public Schools graduate last June. Yonkers schools receive similar per-pupil funding as the state?s other large districts and met AYP last year.

Last month the district opened the Rochester Early College High School in collaboration with the Asia Society, which emphasizes global learning. Its goal is to reach a 100 percent graduation rate for its students. The district has also upgraded its Career and Technical Education program on the premise that college is not the only destination. "I have kids building houses from the ground up together with local trade unions," says Brizard.

The Buffalo City School District also has invested in improving its schools from the bottom up. Superintendent James Williams notes that when he arrived five years ago, the district was meeting only 14 of the 38 indicators on its AYP report card. That number has steadily increased to 35 of 38 for the 2008-2009 school year. And while the district as a whole is in its seventh year of Needs Improvement, Williams says, "We've gotten 13 schools off the Needs Improvement list."

Williams admits that he targets his spending and measures his return on investment narrowly. "What we do well is teach kids to prepare well for the test on a given day. That means we've met the minimum standards," he explains. "That's not good enough. Now we have to take it to the next level of problem solving and critical thinking."

To that end, Williams contends, he could use even more funding. "The first thing I'd want to do is extend the school day and the school year from 200 days to 240 days," he says. Williams, who came to Buffalo after leading the Dayton (Ohio) Public Schools, also chafes at the way his current budget is consumed. "They spend a lot of money in this state, but that spending is affected by powerful unions," he complains. "I've never been in a state where you pay administrators for overtime. I've never been in a system where there's an $8 million annual rider (to employee health insurance policies) for cosmetic surgery— tummy tucks and facials. That adds to your per-pupil expenditure."

Williams adds that since he arrived in Buffalo, he has been pressing for a single, more economical health plan that would cover his district's various unions and could save $1 million a month. "The unions took us to court to keep their current health plans, and we lost," he says. Williams is not alone in wrestling with spiraling benefits costs.

Pierorazio says that the Yonkers district's pension contributions have increased by over $13 million this year. Brizard adds that health insurance costs in the Rochester City Schools have skyrocketed to $80 million annually, adding to the per-pupil expenditure, although he recently persuaded the district's four unions to agree on a single health plan that will save $41 million over three years.

Utah's Tight Budget

Utah's three largest school districts—Granite (68,310 students), Davis (65,452) and Alpine (64,500)—are more than 2,000 miles away and a world apart from their largely urban New York counterparts. And while their annual per-pupil expenditures are barely a third of New York's districts, they have achieved some impressive results—from graduation rates between 85 and 92 percent, to AP scores that rank in the nation's first quartile, to a spate of innovations designed to get more bang for their limited bucks.

"I know Utah is usually the lowest in the nation, and Alpine is one of the lowest in Utah ($5,938) when it comes to per-pupil expenditures, but one of the reasons we do well is that we spend about 73 percent of our budget on instruction," says Vern Henshaw, the superintendent of the Alpine School District, which serves 13 municipalities between Salt Lake City and Provo. (The national average is 63 percent.) "We're a fairly lean machine when it comes to the periphery. The supporting cast—from transportation to maintenance—is extremely low."

Utah's instructional dollars go further than those in some other states, Henshaw adds, noting that starting teachers receive $32,00 a year, as compared to Yonkers' starting salary of $57,000. Alpine has also instituted what Henshaw calls a "productivity model" in 39 of the district's 51 elementary schools and at 11 junior high schools, so that they can accommodate larger numbers of students at minimum additional cost.

The on-site workday for teachers is eight hours rather than the customary seven, and they receive proportionately higher wages, while the students come to the schools in staggered shifts in the morning to spread out the school day. "In that way, I'm saving dollars in not paying benefit and retirement costs for additional teachers," Henshaw says, adding that his approach has saved the expense of building half a dozen additional elementary schools and one junior high.

Teachers at all of Alpine's public schools have been trained to disaggregate data from test results according to subgroups, and every Monday—an early release day throughout the district—they gather to target the students who need help. As a result, Henshaw says, the district consistently meets AYP, almost 90 percent of sixth-graders are reading at grade level, and test scores in reading, math and science have steadily increased for middle and high school students over the past five years.

Alpine also offers 32 AP subjects. "It shows the overall importance our district and our families place on education and the value of being prepared beyond high school," Henshaw says. He does admit, however, that with more funding he could accelerate a laptop program that so far is limited to providing two sets of laptops to cover three grades.

The Davis School District, north of Salt Lake City, which has a $6,400 per-pupil expenditure, has the distinction of having none of its 84 schools on the Needs Improvement list, notes Superintendent Byron Bowles. Davis has a robust IB program at several middle and high schools and over the past two years has launched Chinese, German, and French immersion programs to go along with an existing Spanish program at six elementary schools.

Last spring, Davis High School, which has 2,500 students, administered nearly 5,000 AP tests to juniors and seniors who took AP tests in multiple subjects and who achieved an overall 87 percent passing rate. "Our decisions are always based on ‘How do we get as much money to classrooms without hurting the support services they need?'," Bowles says of his schools' record of success.

Although the district's elementary and middle schools—which serve as many as 1,000 students—have no assistant principals, Bowles fills the void by supplying lower-paid principals-in-training to handle the workload. Davis teachers, meanwhile, have become adept at teaching large classes, from the mid-20s at the elementary level to the high 30s in high school.

"With that low a per-pupil expenditure, Utah has the highest class sizes in the nation," says Stephen Ronnenkamp, who just retired from Salt Lake City's Granite School District in September after 14 years as superintendent. "But where the larger problem rests is that the teacher is doing more work with very few resources and very little support for that class."

A typical Granite elementary school has 600 to 1,000 students and one principal, he notes. "No assistant principals, no math specialists, just a half-time reading specialist, and no physical education teachers," he says, adding that it leaves classroom teachers handling remedial math and P.E.

Ronnenkamp, a former president of the Utah Association of Superintendents, points to 2006-2007 census data that shows per-pupil expenditures for school administration and staff averaged $348 in Utah, compared to $535 nationally. Although the Granite district itself, which has a $6,427 per-pupil rate, is on Needs Improvement under NCLB, Ronnenkamp points out that none of its more than 80 schools have been on that list for more than two years.

Every high school offers 12 to 14 AP courses and concurrent enrollment courses for dual credit with Salt Lake Community College. Two high schools offer IB programs. "We're lean and mean and we're on the cutting edge of trying to save money," Ronnenkamp says of his per-pupil expenditure.

Transportation is another cost-saver. School buses run three to four routes, for instance, which reduces the total number of buses and drivers. And the district has aggressively sought partnerships with local businesses, which provide everything from supplies to volunteers. "One of the things about the culture here is that we get tremendous support from parents and grandparents," Ronnenkamp says. "It's kind of a way of life here to step forward and help."

But he adds that Granite's schools are straining under an influx of non-English speaking students. "We're getting kids who never had one day of formal education, and they walk in as 16-year-olds. How do you get these kids up to speed when we have such limited resources?"

Diversity in Utah

While the student population of the Davis and Alpine districts is more than 85 percent white, less than 30 percent economically disadvantaged, and barely 5 percent ESL, the Granite district is considerably more diverse, with 30 percent of the students Hispanic. Almost half of all students are economically disadvantaged and 25 percent are ELLs.

And Salt Lake City, once a mild enclave of the Mormon devout, is becoming increasingly urbanized, with growing problems from poverty to gang violence, imported from the West Coast and even from Pacific Islands such as Tonga. "Our performance has been pretty good so far," Ronnenkamp says, "but the more that Utah becomes demographically like the rest of the country, we're beginning to pay a price."

The large districts in New York have used their advantage in per-student funding to meet the price of educating a diverse and economically poor student body. And while the superintendents in Rochester, Yonkers, and Buffalo have had to trim expenses in the still-tough economy, they could learn something from their Utah counterparts in making education dollars go further.