The REAL Cost of Public Education

In his article They Spend WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools
Adam B. Schaeffer states:

Although public schools are usually the biggest item in state and local budgets, spending figures provided by public school officials and reported in the media often leave out major costs of education and thus understate what is actually spent.

To document the phenomenon, this paper reviews district budgets and state records for the nation’s five largest metro areas and the District of Columbia. It reveals that, on average, per-pupil spending in these areas is 44 percent higher than officially reported.

His article is based on a recent Cato Institute study contrasting the published per pupil cost of public education versus the actual per pupil costs and finds that public education officials routinely lie about how much public education actually costs.

How much I wish they’d looked at Prince William County……..

We’ve all been listening to the complaints from PWCS about the budget and the need to raise taxes so that vital school services aren’t cut. Our rising (or falling according to PWCS) cost per pupil is an important item in assessing our schools financial needs.

Looking at the proposed and approved budgets for PWCS you see that the published cost per pupil was $10,429 for FY 2008; $10,776 for FY 2009; and $10,383 for FY 2010. But is this our actual per pupil cost?

If you divide by total Operating and Debt Service Budget by total enrollment you come up with different figures. If you take the total Operating and Debt Service Budgets and divide them by actual / projected enrollment you come up with a per pupil cost of $11,584 for FY 2008; $11,822 for FY 2009; and $11,556 for FY 2010 – a cost which is about $1,100 more than the published per pupil cost.

PWCS has a large debt burden. That’s largely because of new school and other construction necessary to keep up with increased enrollment. Our per student cost for Debt Service was $808 in FY 2008, $825 in FY 2009, and $837 in FY 2010. But that cost isn’t included in the per pupil cost published by PWCS.

Just a wild guess here, but defaulting on our debt would probably be a bad thing.

Bear in mind that this cost is based on budgeted, not actual expenditures. Based on actual expenditures, as per PWCS’ published audited financial statements, the per pupil cost was $12,078 for FY 2008 and $12,112 for FY 2009 (FY 2010 numbers are not available as the Fiscal Year isn’t complete).

Anyone else confused?


  • PWCS 2009 Comprehensive Annual Financial Statement
  • Superintendent’s Proposed FY 2011 Budget
  • Superintendent’s Approved FY 2010 Budget
  • Superintendent’s Approved FY 2009 Budget
  • Superintendent’s Approved FY 2008 Budget

All of which can be found on links here.


2 Responses to “The REAL Cost of Public Education”

  1. L. Broyles Says:

    Of the cost per student, I’d like to know how much of it is applied directly in the classroom (vital things like teachers salaries, utilities, essential brick-and-mortar expenses, textbooks, supplies, etc.) versus how much goes to paying non-school admin positions, non-essential landscaping, seminars for district admins, food allowances for district functions (where children are not invited), and so many other non-student costs.

    Too many districts inflate their numbers (for bragging rights) by taking all district expenditures and dividing them by the total number of students. Don’t most educated parents prefer to have their kids attend a school where the district spends $15,000 per kid versus $7,500 per kid in our more-is-better society?

    I think we’d find that if we had an itemized list of all expenditures from the district (any district!), more than half of the money going out the door is for admin-related purposes and salaries and not for functions that directly impact our students.

  2. pwceducationreform Says:

    You can find the FY 2011 Budget for PWCS at this link:

    It would be nice to separate the direct cost of educating our kids from indirect costs, but with so many federal and state mandates affecting what we have to provide, just determining that with the information available to the public would be practically impossible. Asking the district for that data would be an exercise in futility as they would be tasked with determining which costs are direct or indirect and have a vested interest in ensuring that indirect costs appear low.

    Of our $760 million operating budget, roughly $323 million is for regular education – a cost of about $4,000 per student. That means we spend $5,000 or more per pupil on stuff that’s not “regular education”. But “regular education doesn’t include school administration, reading, ESOL, SPED, vocational programs, gifted programs, guidance, summer school, transportation, or facilities. The costs for those programs listed in the budget include central and site based administrative costs, so determining what portion of them is direct versus indirect in entirely subjective and impossible to determine from the information available on the PWCS site.

    State law requires teachers to take a set number of professional development classes each year to maintain their teaching certificate. Because this is required per state law, PWCS provides that PD to teachers and reimburses them for some courses taken outside the district (like Master’s level classes at Mason). PD classes within PWCS are frequently conducted during the school day, which requires the district to hire subs to cover teacher’s classes. It would be nice to know how much PD really costs us each year, including the cost of hiring subs to cover classes.

    Transportation costs us about $45 million a year. Assuming 50% of our kids are bussed, that’s about $1,500 per bus rider. One of the largest costs of our extra-curricular programs is the cost of transporting kids to and from those programs. It would be nice to know how much of that $45 million is attributable to extra-curricular programs.

    The superintendent makes $256,000 a year, excluding benefits. He has 10 Associate Superintendents working for him who make an average of about $164,000 each, excluding benefits. The combined salaries & benefits for the 23 people working in the Superintendent’s office is $3.3 million for FY 2011.

    Debt service, the cost of paying the interest and principal on the public schools debt, is about $742 per student. That’s actually down a bit from previous years due in part to the fact that our county has maintained a AAA bond rating.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: