Politics & Government

‘Classroom’ vs. ‘administration’ – how schools really spend their money

Aaliyah Johnson, left, and Ama Aguirre, students at L’Ouverture Career Explorations & Technology Magnet Elementary, work on their iPads together in the classroom in 2015.
Aaliyah Johnson, left, and Ama Aguirre, students at L’Ouverture Career Explorations & Technology Magnet Elementary, work on their iPads together in the classroom in 2015. File photo

During this campaign season, you’ve probably heard more than one politician say that school districts need to cut administration and get more dollars into the classroom.

Which raises the question: How much money actually goes to the classroom – and how much goes to the other functions of a school district, such as counseling, health care, food service, building maintenance and transportation?

Politics aside, there is hard data showing how schools spend their money.

Under federal law, all school districts in the United States report their operational spending each year, using the same form and same definitions.

The information is compiled by the Census Bureau into an annual report showing the spending breakdowns, by district, across the country.

Reports on all Kansas school districts are available at the Kansas Department of Education website at http://bit.ly/2dQICc0.

How much do schools spend per student?

The most recent spending report published by the state Department of Education, for 2014-15, shows a state average of $10,783 per pupil.

Wait, I heard someplace it was $13,000 and change.

That’s a statewide average that includes expenditures that are not part of K-12 education, such as adult education and at-risk preschool.

That also includes capital improvement spending and bond payments. Most of that money comes from voter-approved school bonds and can only be used for the purposes voters intended – to build, renovate and equip schools. That money can’t legally be diverted to hire more teachers or give employees raises.

Also, averaging capital improvement and bond spending into the total doesn’t tell you much about school finance overall, because the numbers vary widely depending on which districts have building projects at any given time. A few big projects in a few districts can skew the average.

In the last report, 2014-15, the base school district at Fort Riley built a new school and reported $10,941 per pupil in capital spending. Meanwhile, 211 of the state’s 286 school districts reported spending less than $1,000 per student on that.

How much goes to instruction, administration?

Statewide, the average school spends about 61 percent on classroom instruction. The federal definition of instructional spending essentially includes teacher and teacher aide salaries and benefits, plus classroom supplies and materials.

School administration gets about 5.8 percent. That pays for the principal, assistant principals and full-time department heads, plus supplies to operate the school.

General administration runs about 2.4 percent and includes the superintendent, the school board, human resources and district office supplies.

Those spending proportions have stayed essentially stable in Kansas for the past 10 years.

This chart shows the relationship between classroom spending, central administration and school site administration:


Where does the rest of the money go?

For the 2014-15 school year, the latest data available, the percentage breakdown looks like this statewide, rounded to the nearest percentage point:

Instruction: 61 percent

Building operations and maintenance: 10 percent

School administration: 6 percent

Student support: 5 percent

Staff support: 5 percent

Transportation: 4 percent

Food service: 4 percent

Other support: 3 percent

General administration: 2 percent


These percentages vary from district to district.

They’re largely dependent on the size of the district and the makeup of the student body, according to the Kansas Department of Education.

For example, a district with a large number of poor and at-risk students may spend more on counselors or nursing services than the average, while a sprawling rural district might need to spend a larger proportion on transportation.

What are student support and staff support?

Student support includes spending for medical, dental, nursing, psychological and speech services; also attendance record-keeping, social work, student accounting, counseling, testing, record maintenance and placement services.

Staff support includes expenditures that help teachers teach, including library, media, audiovisual, television and computer-assisted instruction services; also curriculum development and instructional staff training.

There’s an unending debate between Kansas school districts and conservative legislators over whether student and staff support should be included in the definition of “classroom spending.”

School officials contend that guidance counselors, librarians, psychologists, social workers and nurses are vital to well-run schools and should be counted as classroom spending because they directly work with students.

Aren’t schools supposed to spend 65 percent on instruction?

A state law passed in 2005 set that as a goal, but not a mandate.

The “65 percent solution” was proposed by a Republican political consultant running a group called First Class Education. The campaign was funded by Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne.

Nationally, interest in the 65 percent solution dropped off after a Standard & Poors study and others found no significant correlation between the percentage spent on instruction and student achievement. First Class Education’s website went inactive in 2009 and it is now used to advertise online college programs.

However, the 65 percent goal remains in Kansas statute.

What about Wichita?

In the 2014-15 report, Wichita spent $11,695 per student. About 55 percent of that went to instruction.

The big divergence from other districts’ spending is student and staff support. Wichita spends more than 14 percent of its money on those support services, well above the 9 percent state average.

District officials say that’s necessary because Wichita has a high percentage of poor students who need additional help to succeed in school.

That explanation is backed by a Department of Education report: “A high concentration of students on free and/or reduced price meals (poses) a special challenge for those districts, such as the need for additional social workers or guidance counselors.”

About 73 percent of Wichita students get free or reduced-price meals, compared with a state average of about 48 percent.

Wichita’s spending for central administration, less than 1 percent of the district’s overall spending, is well below the state average.

Administration at the school level is about one percentage point higher than the state average, at 6.8 percent.


Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas