LAUSD spends $30K per student
August 20, 2010
AUGUST 20, 2010
By JOHN SEILER
The research by Adam Schaeffer of the Cato Institute’s Center for Education Freedom seemed shocking: The Los Angeles Unified School District spent $29,780 per student in fiscal year 2007-08. That’s way above the $10,000 as advertised by the school district, and as used in most studies.
The $29,780 per student figure means a class of 25 students would spend $744,500 a year.
I talked to Schaeffer and had him send me his research, which I’ll append to this article. He also pointed to a more comprehensive study he conducted in March, “They Spend WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools,” which tracked and compared school-district spending around the country. It includes data on LAUSD that was updated in his more recent research. The earlier study found a wide divergence in total spending in California school districts, such as only $11,215 for Linwood Unified and $20,751 for Beverly Hills Unified.
I also talked to the LAUSD and to Lance Izumi, Koret Senior Fellow in Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute, CalWatchDog.com’s parent institute.
Basically, what Schaeffer found was that the LAUSD doesn’t count capital spending, such as from local and state bond measures passed by voters. For example, $1.18 billion was spent in 2007-08 from Measure R, which 64 percent of voters passed in March 2004. And the district spent $668 million from state Proposition 55, also on the March 2004 ballot. According to Ballotopedia, it barely passed with 50.9 percent of the votes. Both were bonds.
Those and similar measures were passed during the boom times of the California economy. It’s a good question whether voters would pass them during the current deep recession. It’s also curious that these bonds, and similar ones, were passed at a time when state and LAUSD student enrollment has been declining.
Why isn’t this money accounted for in the usual per-pupil tallies? “They act as if its ‘bond revenue. Oh, it’s not tax money’,” Schaeffer told me. “What the districts do is like credit card debt. It’s revolving. When you bring it up, they always move the topic of the conversation to, ‘we froze salaries and cut positions’.”
I called up LAUSD, talked to Spokesperson Lydia Ramos, and sent her links to Schaeffer’s research. A week later I called her for her perspective. “Essentially it’s going to be difficult to comment,” she replied. “Most school districts don’t count capital funding” in budget reports. “We obviously are doing our best to pass every dollar down to the classroom.”
I pointed out that, when I buy something at Walmart, the price includes the costs of capital spending for buildings. “That’s not how we view our work,” she replied. And she said of the money sent for capital construction from Sacramento, “That’s really a state decision. When no one else does it” – includes capital spending in per-pupil spending numbers. “Why are we perceived as under-reporting when no one uses this methodology?”
I brought up Schaeffer’s number of $29,780 per student and asked if that was correct. “You’re using a methodology that only you are using,” Ramos replied. “No, that’s not accurate. That’s not what we’re doing. I’m going to have to let you go. This is an issue to take up with the state, or your local district, to see what they are doing.” [This is the first time in my 35 years of journalism that an official spokesperson has hung up on me.]
Because LAUSD gets both state and federal tax dollars, its spending is of interest to those outside the district’s boundaries.
“Those are legitimate costs to include,” Izumi told me of the capital costs. “They can say they don’t count it. But the specification for those costs always is that they will help kids.”
For example, as Ballotopedia recorded, Prop. 55’s ballot question asked state voters, “Should the state sell twelve billion three hundred million dollars ($12,300,000,000) in general obligation bonds for construction and renovation of K-12 school facilities and higher education facilities?” The bond had almost no opposition. Major funding behind the measure came from the California Teachers Association and the California Building Industry Association.
The cost of Prop. 55 is about $823 million per year, a significant contributor to the state’s current $19 billion budget deficit. LAUSD’s 694,288 students in 2007-08 were about 11 percent of the state’s approximately 6.3 million public-school students.
As to the LAUSD’s insistence on excluding capital costs, Izumi asked, “Would these kids learn the same if they were sitting in the park some place? To not include those costs is only to give half the story about what’s being spent in those schools. If the district had a disagreement with what the Cato Institute put out, then they should engage in argument about it. If the district isn’t willing to engage, then you have to wonder how strong a case they have.
“They didn’t say they disagreed with it. They just said they didn’t include the figures the Cato Institute used. That gives credence to Cato’s methodology. Public schools often aren’t willing to engage in debate.”
For its $29,780 spent per student, LAUSD’s graduation rate is 40.6 percent, second worst in the country.
Appendix: Los Angeles Unified School District Budget Data, Fiscal 2007-08: