University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Arkansas School Spending by Level

In The View from the OEP on May 22, 2019 at 10:58 am

Two weeks ago we provided a first look at Arkansas’ brand new school-level spending data. Today we dig a little deeper to look at how spending varies by school level. We show that there is significant variation in spending based on the grades schools serve, and we attempt to explain some of that variation by looking at several important spending categories.

In the coming weeks we also plan investigate how spending varies by school type (i.e., traditional public vs. open enrollment charter) and whether Arkansas’ schools exhibit meaningful economies of scale (i.e., do bigger schools spend less on things like administration). For those interested in playing with the school-level spending data on their own, you can either go to or download the data from our website.

For this post we divide schools into three levels: elementary, middle, and high. Because districts have the flexibility to distribute grades differently across schools, there is some variation around the state in school level terminology. However, we chose to use the same categorization that is used for Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reporting. In general, this means that we label schools serving kindergarten through 5th grade as elementary, grades 6 through 8 as middle, grades 9 through 12 as high.

Figure 1 shows total per pupil spending by school level. While there is a lot of variation within each level, a clear pattern is evident across levels – high schools spend the most per pupil, middle schools spend the least, and elementary schools are in between. We have included the school level medians to further illustrate this point. The median represents the school exactly in the middle of the per pupil spending distribution for each level. Half of schools spend more than the median and half spend less. The high school median is the highest at $10,594. The elementary school median is $9,586 or $1,008 per pupil lower, and the middle school median is $9,185 or $1,409 per pupil lower.

Figure 1: 2017-18 Total Spending Per Pupil by School Level

To better understand what’s driving spending differences across school levels, we take a closer look at four important categories that together represent nearly 80 percent of all Arkansas school expenditures: instruction, administration, student support services, and instructional staff support.

Figure 2 shows the per pupil spending devoted to instruction. This category includes teachers’ salaries as well as books and other instructional supplies. Here too Arkansas’ high schools spend more than elementary and middle schools. The median high school spends $6,184 per pupil on instruction, while the median elementary and middle schools spend $5,245 and $5,055 respectively. Higher per pupil spending on instruction explains nearly all of the difference in total per pupil spending between the median high school and elementary school and about half of the difference between the median high school and middle school. High schools spend more on instruction because class sizes generally decline as grade level increases and high school teachers can be more expensive due to factors like the prevalence of advanced degrees and other specialized skills/certifications (i.e., national board certified).

Figure 3 depicts the distribution of school spending on administration (i.e., school and district). This category includes school principals as well as district administration and the superintendent. Spending on administration is quite similar across school levels. The median elementary and middle schools spend $727 and $763 per pupil respectively on administration. The median high school spends $845 or right around $100 dollars more per pupil. Given the nature of supervising older students, it’s not too surprising that administration spending increases with grade level and that high schools spend the most on administration.

Figure 2: 2017-18 Per Pupil Spending for Instruction by School Level

Figure 3: 2017-18 Per Pupil Spending for Administration by School Level

Figures 4 and 5 show per pupil expenditures on support services for students and instructional staff respectively. Student support services includes things like physical and mental health services and guidance counselors, and instructional staff support includes expenses related to professional development. Arkansas’ schools generally spend less on support services for students and instructional staff than they spend on administration, but there is significant overlap in the distribution of all three categories, with instructional staff support exhibiting the most variation (i.e., the distribution is much more spread out).

Elementary schools spend more for support services. Median elementary school spending for both types of support services is around $100 more per pupil than median high school or middle school spending. The median elementary school spends $537 per pupil on student support services, while the median middle school spends $431 and the median high school spends $451. And for instructional support, the median elementary school spends $785 per pupil, while the median middle school spends $653 and the median high school spends $628.

Figure 4: 2017-18 Per Pupil Spending for Student Support Services by School Level

Figure 5: 2017-18 Per Pupil Spending for Instructional Staff Support by School Level

The upshot of our analysis is that Arkansas spends the most on high schools and the least on middle schools, with elementary school spending falling in between. Greater total spending on high schools can largely be explained by higher instructional expenditures, which are likely strongly related to smaller class sizes. High schools also tend to spend more on administration. Elementary schools, on the other hand, tend to spend more on student support services and instructional staff support.

Middle schools spent the least overall as well as on instruction and student support services. While we were not surprised by the greater spending on high schools, prior to performing this analysis, we would have guessed that the high school spending gap would have been smaller and that elementary and middle school spending would have looked more similar. Arkansas’ middle school spending might be an area worth further investigation given that it represents a critical juncture for kids, and as a country, we have made less progress improving academic performance in the middle grades and beyond than we have in elementary school. For those interested in some additional reading on middle school performance check out the Education Next articles here, here, and here.

As we mentioned in the introduction, we have a couple of additional topics that we plan to investigate using the new school-level spending data. However, we also want to hear what you are interested in learning more about. Please feel free to suggest topics or questions in the comments or just reach out to us directly.

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