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July 30, 2015

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Investing in education: States that spend the most, least per student

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Justin M. Bowen

Arthur Gamboa leads a discussion with his 38 students in his Modern Literature class at Palo Verde High School Wednesday, May 11, 2011.

If a state spends more on schools, will students perform better?

That’s the question being debated in Nevada and nationwide as states grapple with shrinking budgets and parents and leaders debate how best to educate children.

The short answer is: not necessarily. A recent analysis by the U.S. Census Bureau, coupled with graduation statistics compiled by Education Week, shows the amount of money a state spends on a student doesn’t necessarily correlate with how well that student performs. In other words, many generous states have woefully low graduation rates, while some stingier states graduate students en mass.

On average, states spent $10,499 per pupil during the 2008-09 school year, the most recent year for which figures were available. Leading the country was New York, which spent almost double that per student. Utah rounded up the bottom, shelling out just more than half that.

Where does Nevada rank? (Hint: Not at the top.) Here are the seven states with the highest spending per pupil, and the seven states with the least spending per pupil.

      1: New York

      • Spending per pupil: $18,126

      • Graduation rate: 72 percent

      New York leads the nation in per pupil spending for the fifth year in a row, but it comes at a cost: The state has one of the highest property tax rates in the country. The state has doubled its per student spending over the past decade, and school districts pay the most lucrative teacher salaries and benefits in the country, about double the national average.

      And while New York’s high school graduation rate improves slightly year over year, studies show the vast majority of graduates are not prepared for college.

      2. Washington, D.C.

      • Spending per pupil: $16,408

      • Graduation rate: 43 percent

      Washington, D.C., ranks second in the nation for per pupil spending, but its graduation rates are among the worst in the country. Anti-tax advocates often use it as a centerpiece for arguing that higher spending doesn’t always equate to better results.

      One likely reason for the failing schools: It spends more money than any state on school administration. And although teachers are paid well, they receive paltry benefits packages.

      3. New Jersey

      • Spending per pupil: $16,271

      • Graduation rate: 87 percent

      Other states spend more on education than New Jersey, but the Garden State boasts the highest graduation rate in the country. It also leads the nation in graduating Hispanic and black students.

      The numbers aren’t good enough for Republican Gov. Chris Christie. He recently announced a pilot program that would allow private companies to run public schools in chronically underperforming districts, a plan strongly opposed by the state’s teachers union.

      4. Alaska

      • Spending per pupil: $15,552

      • Graduation rate: 66 percent

      Alaska receives the most federal aid per pupil of any state, more than double the national average. But the state struggles to keep its schools open because of a lack of population. State funding makes up the bulk of school districts’ revenue.

      Little-known fact: If a student misses a significant amount of school, resulting in worsening grades, the student’s parents can be fined $500 a day for every day missed.

      5. Vermont

      • Spending per pupil: $15,175

      • Graduation rate: 82 percent

      Along with having one of the highest per pupil spending averages in the country, Vermont showed one of the highest education spending increases from 2008 to 2009. Spending per pupil rose 6.1 percent, compared with the national average of 2.3 percent.

      To keep spending high as federal stimulus money runs out, Vermont’s education commissioner wants to phase out most of the state’s small school grants and consolidate its 277 school districts. Vermont leads the nation in spending the most amount of state money per pupil.

      6. Wyoming

      • Spending per pupil: $14,573

      • Graduation rate: 71 percent

      Wyoming relies less heavily on federal funding than most states, instead paying for education largely with state dollars. And state funding for teacher salaries rose sharply in 2006 after a study commissioned by the Legislature found that higher salaries kept new hires in the classroom.

      Did you know? The Wyoming Supreme Court recently upheld the constitutionality of a school district requiring drug and alcohol testing for students who participate in extracurricular activities. Nine school districts in Wyoming mandate such testing.

      7. Connecticut

      • Spending per pupil: $14,531

      • Graduation rate: 79 percent

      The bulk of Connecticut’s education funding comes from local sources; the state receives the third lowest amount of federal funding in the nation. Still, it is a leader in teacher pay and benefits and spends more than most states on administration costs.

      Interesting tidbit: A Connecticut mother was charged with first-degree grand larceny and conspiracy for allegedly stealing $15,686 in educational services from Norwalk Public Schools. Officials alleged her 6-year-old son lived in a different school district.

      45. Nevada

      • Spending per pupil: $8,422

      • Graduation rate: 44 percent

      Nevada lags well below the national average ($10,499) in per pupil spending. The majority of money goes to the Clark County School District, by far the largest in the state, and the bulk of the district’s spending pays for salary and wages. The bulk of school revenue comes from state and local sources.

      The state historically ranks at or near the bottom in education spending and academic achievement. In fact, for several years Nevada has had the lowest graduation rate in the country. Only Washington, D.C., measured lower.

      46. Mississippi

      • Spending per pupil: $8,075

      • Graduation rate: 61 percent

      Mississippi ranks low in most quality-of-life assessments. The state receives only a small fraction of funding from the federal government and relies heavily on state money. Districts generally spend a sizable portion of their funding on administration and pay teachers poorly.

      In the news: Civil rights advocates are suing Jackson’s public school district, claiming officials at an alternative school shackled children to railings and poles for hours at a time.

      47. Tennessee

      • Spending per pupil: $7,897

      • Graduation rate: 77 percent

      Tennessee enjoys the highest graduation rate among the nation’s lowest-funded schools. That can be attributed in part to the fact that Memphis, the state’s biggest city, spends significantly more on its students.

      Still, many of the city’s schools are struggling. In fact, four Memphis schools last week were pulled from district control and placed into a state-run district. The superintendent is an “Oprah-approved” administrator who founded a successful charter school. He is tasked with improving student outcomes in the lowest performing campuses.

      48. Oklahoma

      • Spending per pupil: $7,855

      • Graduation rate: 70 percent

      Oklahoma offers among the least lucrative teacher salary and benefits packages in the nation. A ballot measure will go to voters in November to decide whether to raise per pupil spending to the regional average. Such a move would cost $1.7 billion over three years, and the state already faces a $1 billion budget hole.

      To help ease the crunch of increasing school populations, at least one district has begun to offer students the option of attending a free online public charter school. Teachers provide online instruction and support, K-12 students work at their own pace, and the school is governed by an independent nonprofit board.

      49. Arizona

      • Spending per pupil: $7,813

      • Graduation rate: 67 percent

      Arizona relies primarily on state and local taxes to fund education, and the Legislature continues to cut both streams of money to schools. Critics argue that the cuts result in low graduation rates.

      At the same time, the gap between “have” and “have not” schools is on the rise, and building repairs statewide go unfunded. This year, voters will see the highest number of school district bond questions on the ballot since 2006, when they had 14 to consider. Arizona also is among the lowest-paying states for teacher salaries.

      50. Idaho

      • Spending per pupil: $7,092

      • Graduation rate: 76 percent

      Idaho public schools face even deeper cuts in the future as lawmakers wrestle with budget deficits. State legislators passed a sweeping education package this year that restricts collective bargaining, eliminates tenure and provides every high school student with a laptop computer. Opponents say the changes will undermine teachers and increase class sizes, while supporters argue the plan stretches the state’s scarce education dollars.

      Idaho ranks low in the amount of federal funding it receives, and the state’s teachers earn the third-lowest salaries in the country.

      51. Utah

      • Spending per pupil: $6,356

      • Graduation rate: 72 percent

      Even though Utah ranks last in the amount of spending per student, it enjoys a higher graduation rate than many of the big spenders. In fact, it graduates the same percentage of students as New York, which leads in per pupil spending.

      Several years ago, Utah officials increased school spending 10.3 percent (the second-highest jump in the country), but per pupil output remained low because the state’s population continued to grow. Utah has a higher average household size — 3.1 people — than the national average of 2.6.

      Quick fact: Almost half of a Utahn’s taxes goes toward schools statewide.

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