How Much Do Saint Louis Area Schools Really Spend?
If you’ve been listening to Saint Louis Public Radio’s coverage of school finance in the region, you might have some serious questions about how we fund our schools. I’m going to go ahead and answer two of them: No, the Saint Louis Public School District does not spend only $9,826 per pupil; and no, there is not a “$15,000 gap in spending between the highest and lowest spending districts in the Saint Louis area.”
According to data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), the Saint Louis Public School District spent $14,779 per pupil in 2015 in operating expenses and $18,476 per pupil when you include the cost of debt and capital projects. The table below (which uses DESE numbers) gathers the spending figures for all of the districts in the region. It shows that in real dollars the gap between the highest and lowest spending districts in the Saint Louis area was less than $9,000.
So how did Saint Louis Public Radio get such different numbers? It’s difficult to say. They state that their
analysis uses a cost of living index to calculate to calculate a national per student spending of almost $12,000 in 2013. The analysis applies that same formula to measure what individual districts are spending in relative dollars.
While adjustments like these could be helpful, especially if they have to account for differences in cost of living, it is important to realize just that—these figures are adjusted.
Unfortunately, this isn’t clear to the average reader. For example, St. Louis Public Radio states:
There are some obvious high points, the Clayton School District is [sic] spent $19,681 per student, according the analysis. That’s compared to Clayton’s neighbor, St. Louis Public Schools, which spent $9,826 per student.
The publication could have easily tacked on, “in cost-adjusted dollars” to the end of the last sentence. More importantly, they also could have explained how they adjusted the spending numbers, figures that vary so wildly from those reported by DESE deserves some serious scrutiny. As it is, readers and listeners have no way of evaluating for themselves the methods that were used to adjust the spending numbers.
We can and should have productive dialogue about school spending and inequities in education. But we can’t have fruitful conversations without a mutual understanding of the statistics that are being used.