Trends in public school funding

by Grace

After decades of increased public school funding, 2010 saw the beginning of a slight downward trend in per-pupil spending.


… Adjusting for inflation and growth in student enrollment, spending fell every year from 2010 to 2012, even as costs for health care, pension plans and special education programs continued to rise faster than inflation.1 Urban districts have been particularly hard-hit by the cuts in federal education spending: Nearly 90 percent of big-city school districts spent less per student in 2012 than when the recession ended in 2009.

The recent cuts represent a sharp reversal after decades of rising U.S. education spending. In 1950, American school districts spent, on average, roughly $1,800 per student. Spending has risen nearly every year since then; by 2006-07, the last full school year before the recession, per-student spending was nearly $11,000. (Both figures have been adjusted for inflation.) The long increase reflected a range of factors, among them higher teacher salaries, broader curricular and extracurricular offerings, and, especially in recent years, increased spending on students with disabilities. Another major factor: smaller class sizes. In the 1950s, there were roughly 25 students for every teacher; by 2007, the ratio had fallen to 15.5-to-one.

The latest numbers show that the average student-teacher ratio in public schools is 16-to-one.


Sources of public education funding   —   State: 45%    Local: 45%    Federal: 10%

More details about trends in public school spending can be found in Public Education Finances: 2012, published earlier this year by the U.S. Census Bureau.


Ben Casselman, “Public Schools Are Hurting More in the Recovery Than in the Recession”, FiveThirtyEight, June 10, 2014.


10 Comments to “Trends in public school funding”

  1. I am wondering about the student to teacher ratio. We certainly do not have class sizes of 15 here. When I speak with my students who came out of NYC public school, it sounds like 30 or more is the norm for classes there. Is this perhaps also skewed by special classrooms for disabled kids?


  2. I suspect the special ed classes have a large effect on average class size. For example, the resource classrooms I know about locally have a maximum pupil size of 5. Although now that I look at the graph the biggest decline seemed to have occurred before much of today’s extensive disability services became available.


  3. Notice that the decline is steeper in private schools. That, I think, is because private schools compete on things that parents want, and parents want small class size most of all.

    If a lot of increase in spending is due to special education, we just have to be aware of that and not blame the schools for it. Back in the day, lots of those kids wouldn’t have been permitted to go to school at all.


  4. Yes, most parents highly value small class size.

    IMO special education spending is inefficient, with too much money wasted in implementing questionable policies like putting inclusion as the top priority in many cases. In a sense I “blame” the schools because they’re part of the bureaucracy that pushes for this inefficiency.


  5. It’s interesting that part of the reason for the steeper decline in private schools is that for many years public schools actually had smaller class sizes.


  6. I wonder if the large class size in private schools was attributable to Catholic schools–in my Catholic school in the 60s and 70s, we had class sizes of about 50. Of course, when the nuns could hit you, it was easy to maintain discipline….,


  7. I am sure the smaller class sizes in private schools have to do with the decline of Catholic schools. Catholic schools in the 50’s and 60’s (my husband went to one) flourished because there was no choice. Parents sent their kids to the Catholic school not because they thought the kids would learn more,but because they were Catholic, and their community would have seen them as strange if they chose public, There was also a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment in the public schools until the 60’s. And, the Catholic schools were often tied to ethnicity and were seen as a way to preserve ethnicity and language. That was very much the case for my husband’s family, who lived in a town with an Italian Catholic school, a Polish Catholic school, and a French Catholic school.


  8. I don’t think there is any more waste in sped spending than in any other aspect of school spending. I have a pretty closeup view since I do have a son who has been in special education since he was 2. He is very much in the category of kid who would not have been allowed into public school back in the 60’s or 70’s. He would have been forced into a state school for the deaf, which were terrible places. Instead, he is at the top of his class and won an academic achievement award last year. This all because of mandated services – lots of speech therapy starting at 2,5, a special education aide in preschool, a teacher of the hearing impaired in elementary school, an FM system. Yes, he did cost the district more than a typical kid. I bet the varsity football players cost the district more too.

    Some people will argue that some kids simply don’t have the potential and thus the school district shouldn’t spend so much money on them. I think that is a terrible slippery slope. One of my good friends is mom to a kid with severe CP. She gets educated in a special program (no inclusion there) at a level that makes sense for her. This child is never going to live independently, but she is still entitled to an education.

    Finally, as to the supposed pressure for full inclusion. First, we actually felt more pressure in the opposite direction. The district, at several junctures, wanted my son in special classrooms rather than the mainstream one. Second, mainstreaming kids is often a cheaper option. In many districts, the big sped costs are incurred when parents insist their kid be placed in a private, specialized program. I have learned there are certain educational psychologists you hire for the neuropsych eval, and certain lawyers you hire, if you are a parent who wants that outcome. Those are big costs for school districts.

    Lastly, unless you want to simply warehouse kids with disabilities like we did in the old days, someone has to pay for their care and education. If not the schools, then who? There is always the temptation to warehouse people with disabilities, and we need to get away from that.


  9. Benefits Lawyer — I almost made that exact comment about Catholic schools! When I attended we probably had 45-50 students per class.


  10. “I don’t think there is any more waste in sped spending than in any other aspect of school spending.”

    That’s probably true.

    My observation and what I’ve read about is the intense pressure for inclusion. In terms of cost and actual learning for all students, inclusion often doesn’t work well. Special ed students are placed in regular classes where they have aides and/or need constant attention that slows the rest of the class. Then these same students are pulled out for specialized instruction, which means they are missing important activities in the regular classroom that must be retaught or is never learned. In a particular subject they may be taught twice, once in the regular classroom and again in the pull-out class. Simply placing these students in a specialized class in the first place makes much more sense to me.


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