How Much Does Oregon Spend Per Student?

No other question in public education seems to start an argument more than this one. It shouldn’t be so hard for taxpayers to get an answer to this question. But it is.

One reason is that school groups tend to see spending from an “inside” perspective, rather than from a taxpayer’s perspective. From the inside, it matters whether the money comes from the state, the feds, the local Educational Service District or local property taxes. There are different pots of money and they pay for different things. Most education insiders hear “spending,” and they immediately think about their own particular budget.

From a taxpayer’s perspective, none of this matters, since all the money comes from them. They just want to know how much tax money public schools spend to educate the kids.

This is why you have to be careful about exactly how you phrase the question. If you ask how much the state spends, or how much a district spends, you will get an answer that is technically correct; but it will not include all the money being spent on our children.

The Oregon School Boards Association has even created a two-page primer to help persuade the public to ignore some spending:

Part of the confusion comes from calculating a per-student figure from an “all funds revenue” budget instead of an “operating revenue” budget. An all-funds budget (the bigger of the two) is misleading because it includes money that is counted twice, or is transferred between accounts — which isn’t “new” money. All-funds revenue also includes bond money used to pay off construction debt. An operating revenue budget shows a truer picture of resources per student, especially in comparisons to other states. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics uses only operating revenue budgets.

The OSBA is correct that money should not be double-counted. However, the claim that construction debt should be ignored is dubious. School Districts never like to include the capital construction bonds in their per-student spending. Their explanation is that this money isn’t “fungible” (meaning they can’t spend it on day-to-day activities) within their annual budgets. This is true.

Capital construction bonds are loans used to pay for school building construction and/or remodeling. When the taxpayers pass these bond measures, the districts get a lump sum for construction and then spend the next decade or two paying back the loan (with interest) using money collected from property taxes.

So should this annual loan repayment be included in the per-student spending figure in Oregon?

Of course it should. These are basically mortgage payments.

The OSBA document uses figures from four years ago and calculates per-student spending in Oregon at $8,560. They freely admit that they aren’t counting $1,700 spent on capital construction.

So, the real spending figure per student in Oregon was $10,260 in the 2003-04 school year.

Of course, the figures used by the OSBA don’t match the figures given by the Department of Education, which just proves how hard it is to get reliable information on school spending. Even The Chalkboard Project’s Open Books website does not count capital construction/expenditures when calculating the per-student figures listed on their site.

To my knowledge, the OSBA has not updated their calculations to include more recent school spending figures. But according to their own basic numbers, the per-student figure was more than $10,000 four years ago, even though they use the same numbers to produce a lower number.

The State of Oregon still does not provide a simple and accurate per-student spending figure defined as:

All Taxpayer Money Spent on Public Education in Oregon
————— (Divided By) —————–
The Number of Public School Students in Oregon

Taxpayers have a right to expect government to be transparent about spending and to provide honest figures””calculated from a taxpayer’s perspective.

Matt Wingard is Director of the School Choice Project at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market think tank.