University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

First Look at Arkansas’ School-Level Spending

In The View from the OEP on May 8, 2019 at 12:27 pm

Each year the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) releases data on public school revenue and expenditures. However, those financial data have traditionally only been available at the district level. It has been nearly impossible to drill down to see how money is being spend at individual schools. But that is beginning to change. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which passed in 2015, included a provision that required states to begin reporting school-level spending by the end of 2018 (see this EdWeek article for more info). Secretary DeVos gave states an extra year to comply with the requirement, but Arkansas is ahead of the curve and has already released school-level spending data this year as part of the school report cards. Here is the link to the data that has been posted onto our website, that sources the data from https://myschoolinfo.arkansas.gov. This post is the first in its series that will provide a first look at the brand-new school-level spending data.

With the new data, we can now analyze how spending is distributed across Arkansas’ schools. This is important because public education dollars are allocated to districts, and those districts have relatively broad authority to apportion dollars across the schools that they oversee. Until now it’s been very hard to compare how districts within the state allocate dollars to schools or to know if they are doing so in an equitable manner.

On average, Arkansas spent $9,914 per pupil during the 2017-18 school year. Average spending per pupil is calculated by dividing total expenditures, including state, local, and federal dollars, by the number of students in average daily membership (ADM). Dividing spending by the number of students allows us to compare expenditures across districts/schools of different sizes.

Figure 1 below shows the distribution of Arkansas school-level spending. These data include all public schools for which spending data are available, including the handful of Alternative Learning Environment (ALE) schools, charter schools, magnet schools, etc. Median school spending, the value where 50 percent of schools spend more and 50 percent spend less, was $9,814, roughly in line with the state average. The figure also displays the 25th($8,783) and 75th($11,218) percentiles. Fifty percent of schools’ per pupil spending falls between these two values, while 25 percent spend more and 25 percent spend less.

Figure 1: Distribution of 2017-18 School-Level Spending Per Pupil

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As noted earlier, we are interested to learn whether districts are allocating dollars equitably across schools serving students of varying poverty levels. To begin to answer that question, Figure 2 provides a scatter plot of school-level per pupil spending versus the percentage of students eligible for the free and reduced lunch program (FRL). To be FRL eligible a student’s family must have an income below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, and so the percentage of students in a school who are FRL eligible is a rough measure of the school’s poverty level.

The data presented in figure 2 show that Arkansas’ schools spend more the higher a school’s poverty level. Spending more in higher poverty schools helps to ensure that those students who are most in need get the support and educational opportunities that they deserve. The progressivity of Arkansas’ school funding has been well documented at the state/district level (for example here and here). However, this is the first time we have been able to show that this progressivity extends down to schools.

Figure 2: Scatter Plot of 2017-18 School-Level Spending Per Pupil vs. Percent FRL

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Digging a bit deeper, we can divide school spending into two broad categories – spending on people and everything else. The ADE’s data system calls these two categories personnel and non-personnel. Figure 3 shows how spending in these two categories is distributed at the school level. The median school spent $7,399 per pupil on people and $2,394 per pupil on everything else.

We can also look at these two categories as a percentage of total school spending. On average, 76 percent of Arkansas’ public school spending paid for public school employees’ salaries and benefits and the remaining 24 percent covered everything else. Figure 4 shows the school-level distribution of the percentage of total spending that was devoted to paying for people. While there is some variation, the vast majority of schools spend between 70 and 80 percent of their budget on people. As is the case across the country, Arkansas’s public schools spend most of their money on people.

Figure 3: School-Level 2017-18 Spending Per Pupil used for Personnel vs Non-Personnel

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Figure 4: Percent of School-Level 2017-18 Spending Used for Personnel

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We can also look at spending by activity or purpose. The ADE divides spending into several activity-based categories, but we thought four of the most interesting categories were instruction (e.g., teachers’ salaries, books, etc.), student support services (e.g., physical and mental health services, guidance counselors, etc.), instructional staff support (e.g, professional development, etc., and administration (principles, superintendents, other central office staff, etc.). The median Arkansas school spent 56 percent of its budget on instruction, 5 percent on student support services, 7 percent on instructional staff support, and 8 percent on administration. Arkansas’ schools spend most of their budgets on instruction; however the other three categories together make up approximately 25 percent of the remainder. Figure 5 shows the school-level distribution for instruction, and figure 6 shows the other three spending categories.

Figure 5: Percent of School-Level 2017-18 Spending Used for Instruction

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Figure 6: Percent of School-Level 2017-18 Spending Used for Various Activities

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It has long been extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, to analyze education spending at the school level. Most districts simply did not have accounting systems that captured the information and most states, including Arkansas, did not require districts to report school-level spending. That changed with the passage of ESSA, and now Arkansas’ parents, taxpayers, and policymakers are able to see and compare school spending across the state. This presents an excellent opportunity to use this unprecedented level of transparency to improve the equity, efficiency, and efficacy of Arkansas’ public education spending. In sum, it’s an exciting time for the school finance nerds!

In the coming weeks, we plan to publish another post or two looking at spending by school type (e.g., traditional vs charter) and by level (e.g., elementary, middle, high) as well as an investigation into whether Arkansas’ schools exhibit economies of scale (i.e., larger schools spend less on certain categories like administration). In the mean time, don’t forget to visit our website to take a look at the new School Level Financial Data that we’ve posted. Stay tuned for more info in the upcoming weeks!

  1. The disparity is evident in figure 6. Administrative spending is clearly delineated from it’s opposing spending In the category of student support services. It is also important to know who are the identified outliers from figured 2. I believe this information would be beneficial to those that fall closer within the linear model.

    • While it’s true that most schools spend more on administration than student support services, it’s important to note that the administration variable includes both school and district administration. Schools wouldn’t work without some school and district administration, but how much is enough is a relatively open question. It would be interesting to look at how student support services and administration spending varies across schools of different sizes and type. We plan to do that in a follow-up post.

      We also find the outliers from figure 2 interesting. A handful of them are Alternative Learning Environment (ALE) schools that are very different from traditional public schools. We may investigate the outliers in a future post, but in the meantime you can dig into the data here (http://www.officeforeducationpolicy.org/arkansas-schools-data-finances/).

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