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Turn the education spending clock back to 2007.

Per-pupil spending in the nation’s public schools fell for the third straight year in 2012-13*, according to the most recent federal financial data, which was released on January 27, 2016. In that school year, U.S. public schools spent only $10,763 per elementary, middle and high school student, on average, across the country. That’s a tiny $62 per-pupil decrease from the previous school year (2011-12), after adjusting for inflation. But it comes on the heels of two straight years of spending declines, putting us back roughly to how much we spent on public education in 2007, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Cumulatively, we’re spending $858 less per student than we did at the peak, back in 2008-2009, when we spent $11,621, adjusted to today’s dollars.

“You’ve been educating more students with more need as the dollars have been dwindling,” said Hilary Goldmann, executive director of National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, an advocacy organization that lobbies the government for education funds.

Per-pupil school spending 2012-13

(Navigate to any state and click to see student spending data. Interactive map created by Jill Barshay of The Hechinger Report. Source data: Revenues and Expenditures for Public Elementary and Secondary Education: School Year 2012-13, NCES)

The reasons for the 2012-13 dip in education spending are different than those in previous years.  Following the 2008 recession, state and local budgets had dried up. Many regions were forced to make education cuts under balanced-budget rules. Those state and local cuts were only partly offset by a surge in federal funds, aimed at reviving the economy. By 2011-12, President Obama’s stimulus funds had been largely spent down, causing education spending to decline yet again.

In the newly released financial figures for 2012-13, there is evidence of economic recovery. Local funding to schools — from cities, towns, counties and districts — actually went up almost 1 percent, or $2.3 billion, thanks to an increase in housing prices, which led to higher property tax collections. State funds to schools remained stable from the previous year. But surprisingly, federal funds went down 10 percent. That’s $6 billion fewer federal dollars going to public schools.

It’s not immediately obvious why federal funds would tumble like that, since the stimulus funds had already been spent. Meanwhile, the deep “sequestration” budget cuts of 2013, which forced automatic reductions on most federal programs, didn’t kick in until spring, and mostly affected students the following school year.

I talked with Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, and he explained that Congress actually began cutting funds to education before the sequester budget battle. Programs that target high-poverty schools, such as Title I, and special education were both hit. Federal agencies have formulas for distributing this money, based on the number of poor and special needs children, but these formulas are based on a percentage of the money that Congress appropriates. When Congress appropriates less, schools get less — even as the number of poor children and special needs students in the school system rose.

The upshot: more inequality in school funding
Because federal funding declined, and state funding stayed about the same, local funding grew in importance. Local funding now accounts for 46% of education spending — the highest percentage of the total education pie in the last decade, noted Stephen Cornman, an NCES statistician. This troubles people who care about equity in education, because the more you rely on local funds, the more you’re going to have unequal funding between rich and poor communities.

The two NCES reports, “Revenues and Expenditures for Public Elementary and Secondary Education: School Year 2012–13 (Fiscal Year 2013),” and “Revenues and Expenditures for Public Elementary and Secondary School Districts: School Year 2012-13 (Fiscal Year 2013),” are released annually, but contained new data this year. For example, the latter report singles out for the first time how much the largest school districts in each state spend on education (see Table 2, pp. 10-13). Previously, the NCES had highlighted only the 100 largest school districts in the nation, which tended to be clustered on the East Coast where the cost of living is high (see Table 1, pp. 7-9).

Two-year per-pupil spending drops (between 2010-11 and 2012-13) exceeded 6 percent in some states

(Navigate to any state and click to see student spending data. Interactive map created by Jill Barshay of The Hechinger Report. Source data: Revenues and Expenditures for Public Elementary and Secondary Education: School Year 2012-13, NCES)

Not all states saw a decline in spending. Vermont, South Carolina and Alaska all boosted their education spending per student by at least 2 percent in 2012-13 from 2011-12. Among the 20 states that saw at least a 1 percent decline in spending, the steepest drops were in Oregon (down 4.8 percent) and West Virginia (down 4.4 percent). U.S. territories suffered even larger cuts in education spending, with the U.S. Virgin Islands dropping more than 10 percent. Only Puerto Rico, which is now in fiscal trouble, boosted its education spending (by 6 percent).

Unfortunately, Packer of the Committee for Education Funding expects next year’s report, for the 2013-14 school year, to be even bleaker. He says that’s because the deep sequester cuts should kick in. Congress restored some of those cuts in 2014, but not all, putting schools in a financial bind just as they needed more resources to make the transition to Common Core standards. It wasn’t until the December 2015 budget agreement that Congress restored education spending to the pre-sequester level and boosted it some. And students won’t begin to feel that funding until September 2017.

* Note: Technically per-pupil funding dropped .05 percent, or $6.00, between the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, after adjusting for inflation. One could argue that the 2012-13 school year marks the fourth straight year of spending declines. But .05 percent is such a small drop that, practically speaking, school funding remained level between those two years. More meaningful decreases in spending per pupil began with the 2010-11 school year and continued through 2012-13.

This article also appeared here.

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