Budget & Finance From Our Research Center

Do You Know How Much U.S. Schools Spend Per Student? (Most Educators Don’t)

By Arianna Prothero — October 04, 2023 3 min read
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Ask educators how much the United States spends on each public school student, and the median number you’ll get is $9,000, according to data from the EdWeek Research Center. But the actual number is more than $14,000.

That $5,000 difference in perception vs. reality is significant, especially at a time when the K-12 system is seeing some education funding lawsuits, expansion of school choice policies, and growing uncertainty about the status of school funding.

The following chart shows a breakdown, by job title, of how much teachers, principals, and district leaders think U.S. schools spend per pupil.

The data are from a nationally representative survey of teachers, principals, and district leaders, conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in April.

Most school funding comes from state aid and local tax revenue, with the federal government kicking in around 10 percent for spending priorities such as special education and support for high-poverty schools.

Per-pupil funding varies widely from state to state, but that’s probably not what’s fueling educators’ incorrect estimations about how much schools spend per pupil nationally, said Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. Very few states likely fall below $10,000 anymore, she said. And federal data from 2021, which show per pupil funding nationally at $14,347, doesn’t fully account for federal COVID relief-aid and more recent investments from states, Roza said.

‘Persuaded by these persistent narratives’

So, why is there this big disconnect between how much money educators think schools spend per pupil and what is actually spent? And does it matter?

“I think people are more persuaded by these persistent narratives,” said Roza. “They are inundated with messages that the system is inequitable and we don’t have enough money, and they may have not [fact] checked.”

While Roza believes most schools are underfunded, she also believes it’s not helpful suggesting that the funding situation is worse off than it actually is.

Imagine an example of a principal, she said: “You’re hearing these national averages of $14,000 and you believe you’re at $10,000, you might lower your expectations for what you can deliver.”

Another issue is that a lot of school and district administrators may simply not be aware of what is actually spent on students in their own schools, which could skew their estimates.

“Principals will usually quote what they see as [money] spent at their school. A school will get a budget, and it will often be around $10,000 a kid, and they don’t see the money spent on transportation or custodial services or food services or pensions or even special ed. services,” she said. “At the same time, the only district leaders who are looking at that number would be the finance team and maybe the superintendent.”

The Edunomics Lab has developed a certificate in education finance, so Roza has had a lot of conversations with school administrators on this topic.

But whether a person is the director of special education or the assistant superintendent of academics, Roza said it’s still important for them to understand schools’ per-pupil funding.

“More people in the district ought to have greater engagement with those numbers because they can’t weigh in on whether they’re getting full value,” she said. “I think having more eyes on this can potentially surface either better expectations for how we deliver the money, better expectations for students based on what we spend, and new ideas for how we might better deploy the funds and solve the problems that we have.”

Finally, Roza said the fact that principals and especially district administrators’ estimates were off the mark is potentially a symptom of another issue: Many administrators don’t have a good grasp on school finance, in part because certification requirements for their positions often don’t include enough—or any—training in finance.

“It’s not part of the preparation for these leaders. In other industries, you can imagine there would be more focus on the money,” she said. “Even people who end up in the superintendency—they really don’t have the background in that.”

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

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