What School Districts Don't Tell You

Benjamin Levine
Sep 13, 2011 at 2:50 PM

When discussing the cost of public education, many times people will provide the figure of cost per-student.  I have been guilty of this in the past.  However, this is not the most accurate representation of how efficient schools are.  Rather, schools should publish cost per-graduate numbers.  The reason why I - and I assume many others - provide per-student costs is because that’s the only figure available.  Pressure needs to be asserted on schools to force them to provide per-graduate costs or, in the case of elementary schools, the cost per-student that are proficient in certain subjects, passing the correct grade on time, etc.

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To use an analogy, think of Major League Baseball.  Often times, players get bonuses in the playoffs for hits, home runs, or other accomplishments.  However, it’d be ridiculous for a team to pay a player merely for swings.  Something actually has to be achieved. 

It is the same with education.  Cost per-graduate (hit/home run) and not cost per-student (swing) is what really counts.  For example, if a high school has 1,000 students and spends $10,000,000 each year, then the cost per-student will be $10,000.  However, if that school is producing only 70% graduates, then the cost per-graduate is $14,285 dollars – almost a 50% increase from the original figure.  It is not to say that those students who do not graduate aren’t important, yet it is a measure of efficiency.

Now, although this is true, it is extremely hard to figure out the per-graduate cost because most of the time school districts supply only per-student data.  However, even then it is extremely difficult to get the districts to reveal the cost.  In most districts, this crucial statistic is nowhere to be found on their website (and often times the budget is a difficult find, too).  Sometimes it can take up to months in order to get a school district to send you any information because they simply don’t want you to find out.  This is nothing, though, compared to the level of deceit once they actually reveal the per-student cost.  According to a Cato Institute report on the 5 largest school districts in America, as well as the D.C. school district, the actual cost per student is 44% higher than the “official” figure that the district releases. 

How can this be?  Many districts don’t incorporate all costs into the formula, therefore artificially lowering the numbers.  For example, some districts choose to exclude health benefits to employees from their total expenditures when figuring the cost per-student figure, as if tax payers are not paying for those benefits.  Sometimes districts will even leave out expenses on buildings and classrooms, which is even more ridiculous because these very facilities are necessary to produce successful students.  This process is explained further in the video below.  For now, transparency must be improved as a part of education reform and it starts with revealing the actual cost of per-graduate students.