Putting Education Reform To The Test

Why Florida’s Per-Student Spending Isn’t As Bad As It Looks

James Madison Institute

JMI's Bob Sanchez says the report released by the U.S. Census Bureau wasn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison of per-student funding among the states.

As the school year is winding down, Florida school districts are looking ahead to next year and the additional funding coming their way.

Almost half a billion dollars is available to boost the salaries of teachers and other personnel. Plus, spending is going up by more than $400 per student.

Legislative leaders have repeatedly said “education is the big winner” in the state budget that goes into effect July 1.

But, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report this week that may have taken the wind out of some sails.

The report, Public Education Finances: 2011, found Florida ranks 42nd among the states and the District of Columbia for per-pupil spending.

A couple of problems with the report:

  1. It’s outdated. A lot has happened with Florida’s budget since mid-2011.
  2. It doesn’t explain where the money goes. How the money is spent is good to know.

“Evaluating schools, school districts, or states based solely on their spending per pupil can be very misleading unless you can bore down to determine what the money is being spent on,” said Bob Sanchez, policy director at the James Madison Institute, a research and educational organization based in Tallahassee.

“While funding levels can’t be ignored, school systems should be judged more by their output – principally by what their pupils learn – rather than by their “input” as measured in the dollars they spend,” Sanchez said.

Considering results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress – known as the Nation’s Report Card – Florida is doing pretty well for the money.

In a study that compares spending trends with test results, Florida ranks 2nd among the states and D.C.

Sanchez says there are mitigating factors that help explain Florida’s low position on national rankings that focus only on spending.

  • Florida has 67 school districts. Some states have hundreds, and they have to pay all those superintendents and high level administrators. A study last year by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice found Florida is among the lowest in the nation for administrative overhead.
  • Most of the education money is spent on salaries and benefits. “About 85 percent of it is attributable to payroll costs,” Sanchez said, citing the Florida Department of Education. “The cost of living in most parts of Florida is significantly lower than in some of the high-tax states of the Northeast, so that’s another factor to take into account.”
  • School enrollment keeps growing in Florida – unlike some states – and that means more teachers are being hired. The new hires are typically beginners and cheaper to pay. “Even if the salary structure at a given point on the seniority ladder were the same as that in other states,” Sanchez said, “Florida might suffer in comparisons because it will have more teachers on the lower rungs of the salary-scale ladder.”


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