Per-Pupil Spending About Even

The Oxford Foundation’s proposed revision of Michigan’s school funding system seeks to “unbundle” educational services, essentially making it easier for students and parents to choose from a wider selection of public school options.

The proposal has received harsh criticism from many school officials. But at least one line of criticism doesn’t stand up to the facts.

The Oxford proposal would expand school districts’ ability to collect state aid, known as the foundation allowance and worth about $7,000 per pupil, on behalf of nonresident students. In an interview with 101.9 WDET, Vickie Markavitch, superintendent of the Oakland County intermediate school district, said this could not work because "no school spends $7,000 per student."

She went on to explain that different students cost different amounts of money to educate. A proficient third grader might only cost $4,500, but an 11th grader who runs track and field, plays in the orchestra and participates on the debate team might cost between $9,000 and $10,000, she claimed. At first blush, this seems plausible.

However, union contracts are the main drivers of school district spending, and they require paying all teachers based only on years on the job and completed college credits. Therefore, a third-grade teacher might cost a district more than an Advanced Placement physics teacher. Contracts (like this one in Lake Orion) normally require smaller class sizes in the early grades too, forcing districts to hire more elementary teachers than secondary ones.

On average then, one might expect to find just the opposite of what Markavitch’s claims; districts should be spending roughly the same amount per student, regardless of the age or grade of the student. And that’s exactly the case with schools in Oakland County according to school-level spending and enrollment data available from the Center for Education Performance and Information.

Based on “general fund”[1] spending, schools in Oakland County serving primarily elementary students[2] spent an average of $7,284 per pupil in 2010-2011, the most recent year for which data are available. Schools serving primarily middle school students[3] spent $7,299 per pupil, while schools primarily serving high school students[4] spent $7,584 on average.

Per-pupil spending in high schools on average in Oakland County was only 4 percent more than what is spent on average in elementary schools.

Building size may have more of an impact on per-pupil spending than whether the school is an elementary, middle or high school. As schools get larger in Oakland County, per-pupil spending tends to decrease. 

A closer look at the Walled Lake school district, one of the largest in Oakland County, helps illustrate this. The school that spent the least per pupil was Hickory Woods Elementary at $6,911, while the highest spender was Twin Beach Elementary at $10,630. Hickory Woods is the largest elementary school in the district with nearly 600 students, while Twin Beach is the district’s smallest school, enrolling less than 300.

The district’s three high schools averaged spending $7,462 per student, less than the 12 elementary and middle schools in the district. They also enrolled between 1,500 and 1,800 students, more than double the amount of most all other schools.

No matter how much each school spent per student, the largest expenditure for every school in Walled Lake was employee compensation. Salaries, health benefits and pension costs were the top three spending items in every school in the district, and vastly outranked any spending on equipment, textbooks or utilities that one might expect would potentially make a high school student more expensive to educate.

Based on this evidence from Oakland County, there is no reason to believe that allowing the state’s foundation allowance to transfer to parents’ district of choice on behalf of any student would be problematic for districts financially. No matter where those students end up — in a school down the road, the district next door or on the other side of the state (in an online program, for example) — it’s likely that the amount of state funding that follows them to their preferred school will be just about right. 

[1] Does not include spending earmarked for special education, athletics or building construction.

[2] Grade configurations that included pre-K through 6th grade; 171 schools

[3] Grade configurations that included 8th grade, but did not exceed 9th grade; 48 schools

[4] Grade configurations that included 12th grade, but not lower than 6th grade; 56 schools

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.