The “Bruno Principle” of School Finance—Don’t Talk About Total Expenditures
What do the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and most newspaper reporters have in common? They follow the “Bruno Principle” when it comes to spending on debt and facilities for public education—they don’t talk about total expenditures.
Total expenditures include everything it costs to run a school district, from books and salaries to buildings and debt. It is exactly what it sounds like—total expenditures. Try to find this figure for the state on DESE’s website; I doubt you’ll have much luck.
DESE and the newspaper reporters regularly cite Missouri’s or an individual school district’s current expenditures per pupil. Current expenditures are operating expenses that do not include costs for facilities or debt. DESE readily displays these figures on its website and they are the figures you will see repeated in the media. (While you won’t find the total expenditure per pupil figure on DESE’s website, you can calculate it yourself using DESE data—for 2022 it was $18,683.)
There are good reasons to report current expenditures. For starters, they tell you how much it costs to run the day-to-day business of educating kids in a school district. Moreover, they are more or less consistent over time. Total expenditures may fluctuate when a school district makes a big debt payment or decides to build a new building. Nevertheless, this does not make the total expenditure figure pointless.
Current and total expenditures are each relevant, but they answer different questions. Think of it like this. Can you tell the difference between these two questions:
-How much are your housing costs?
-How much does it cost to run your house?
The first question asks how much you are paying for your mortgage or rent and all of your utilities and incidental costs. The second drops the cost of the housing payment. If I want to know how efficient your home is, I might ask that second question. If you are on a budget and I’m trying to help you make sound financial decisions, I’m going to ask the first question.
In the public discussion about school spending, we are only told by DESE, public school officials, and the media about operating expenditures. Taxpayers care about this, but they want to know where all their dollars are going.
It is time to drop the Bruno Principle. It is time to tell Missourians exactly how much their school districts spend (in total) per pupil.
In the interest of promoting transparency, the Show-Me Institute has created a useful data tool: moschoolrankings.org. The site allows you to compare school districts academically. You can also toggle to look at school district finances. Here, you can see how each school district spends your taxpayer dollars.