Reporting School-by-School Spending Data: Inside One State's Approach

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Rhode Island spent an average of $16,000 to educate each of its students in the 2015-16 school year.

But depending on which school a student attends in this tiny state, spending per pupil could be as little as $9,000, or as much as $45,000, according to an analysis by the Education Week Research Center of school-level spending.

That level of spending detail—and the scrutiny it invites from the public and policymakers—is unusual nationwide, even as other states gird for new school-by-school reporting mandates under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

ESSA requires all states to begin reporting that data as of December 2019. Rhode Island has been doing so for eight years, one of at least five states to do so, and it provides a case study of the challenges in collecting the data and what they could ultimately reveal.

Map: Per-Pupil Spending in Rhode Island Schools

Rhode Island is one of the few states that collect school-by-school spending data, soon to be required under the Every Student Succeeds Act. This map shows per-pupil spending by school and just how much spending varies among the schools within individual districts.

To view a school’s spending data on the map, hover over the dot at its location or type its name into the search bar and click when it appears in the drop-down menu. Use the plus or minus buttons to zoom in on the school’s location.

A school may not appear on the map if its geographic location overlaps with another school. In such cases, typing the name of the school into the search box will provide its spending data.

View a larger version of this map.
Source: Education Week Research Center analysis of RIDE data, 2018.
Data Visualization and Analysis: Linda Ouyang and Konan Hui

The state's mandate began in 2006, when the legislature upended its funding formula and a legislator successfully proposed that it break out school-level spending.

The state's finance system today has a category for almost every school cost. While most state finance systems put all teacher salaries in one category, for example, Rhode Island's provides a separate category for schools' reading coaches, as well as English, math, and other types of teachers.

See Also: States Confront New Mandate on School-Spending Transparency

After the legislature required the breakout of school-level spending, state leaders and local officials gathered for months to determine what counts as school costs and what should count as administrative costs.

State education Commissioner Ken Wagner says the hard work will be worth it.

The state has been grappling with ways to cut costs in some districts where student population has plummeted. Separately, charter school advocates and public school officials have bickered over whether they're getting their fair share of state funds.

"We are public officials, and this adds another level of transparency for the public to see what we do on a daily basis," he said.

Technical Hurdles

State leaders are in the process of pairing testing data with finance data to show how, or whether, spending patterns produce higher results for students.

Still, challenges lie ahead.

Today, Rhode Island's school-level-spending data reside on the back end of the state department's website, organized in spreadsheets that make it difficult for laymen to analyze trends and make comparisons.

The Education Week Research Center used a series of calculations provided by the department to aggregate school-level costs and then map them out so that they're easily comparable. The analysis shows that spending varies widely among schools, depending on size, location, and student-body demographics, which may include special education or pre-K students who may be require extra services.

The highest-spending, Drum Rock School, a small school in Warwick that houses an early-childhood-learning center, spends $45,000 per student.

The lowest-spending school, Bernon Heights, spends just $9,000 per student.

Bradford Elementary School, an isolated school in southwest Rhode Island that officials debated closing last year, has just 176 students. Per-pupil spending: $29,000.

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And Block Island Elementary, a school on an island with just 112 students, spends close to $40,000 per student.

At a recent meeting at the state department's headquarters, professional groups, advocates of charter schools, and practitioners from across the state debated ways to make school spending levels public.

Many wondered how schools with high levels of special education students would be categorized and whether high-poverty schools with harder-to-educate students will be noted for having special needs.

The state will soon make the data available as part of its redesigned report card.

Vol. 37, Issue 22, Pages 18-19

Published in Print: February 28, 2018, as One State's Dive Into K-12 Aid Figures
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