Monday, March 20, 2006

Spending on instruction varies among Texas school districts

This piece critiques the 65% plan, something that will likely surface during the special session on school finance.
It's good to get beyond the rhetoric and see what the data actually say.

Spending on instruction varies among Texas school districts
Even stellar performers don't always hit Perry's proposed 65 percent mark, study finds.

By Raven L. Hill
Monday, March 20, 2006

Even Texas' highest-performing school districts vary widely in how much they spend on instruction, according to a study released this week by a coalition of education groups, a finding that adds to the debate about the reasoning behind Gov. Rick Perry's "65 percent rule."

The rule would require school districts to spend almost two-thirds of their budgets on "direct classroom instruction" and will be phased in over several years. The education groups have argued that funding should be handled at the local level.

The report looked at total expenditures and their role in the educational process during the 2003-04 school year and found that most, whether for instruction or other operations, were crucial in meeting the needs of Texas' 4.3 million students.

"To have a one-size-fits-all number that is used not just for reporting but for sanctions is inappropriate," said Catherine Clark, associate director of the Texas Association of School Boards.

The association joined other state organizations representing administrators, school boards, business officials and 29 school districts, including Austin, in commissioning the study.

Texas public schools spent $30.3 billion on instruction, operations, administrative and related costs, according to the report.

Sixty-one percent of the money, an estimated $18.6 billion, went toward instruction expenses, such as salaries and benefits for teachers and staff. General operations, including building maintenance, transportation, food service and security costs, accounted for 20 percent. The remainder was spent on administrative salaries, along with health, legal and professional services.

"I am open to having an annual process by which I must explain (spending decisions) to the public," Austin Superintendent Pat Forgione said. "But having an arbitrary trigger of 65 percent, . . . I've not seen any research that says it's better than 60 percent or 70 percent."

School districts spent more or less than the state average depending on student demographics, location, as well as community expectations, the report noted.

For example, small districts as a rule had relatively higher administrative costs. Meanwhile, districts with more students from low-income families spent more on instruction support services and slightly more on operations, possibly because of the need for services such as counseling, health, and breakfast and lunch programs.

The study also found greater spending variations when it compared higher- and lower-performing districts among their peers in the same class than when comparing higher- and lower-performing districts to each other.

For example, Palo Pinto, a small district outside of Fort Worth that was rated exemplary by the state, spent less than 50 percent on instruction in the 2003-04 school year because it has higher transportation and utility costs, Clark said.

By comparison, the Hamilton school district near Waco, also rated exemplary that year, spent about 64 percent.

Lower-performing districts tended to spend more on instruction than higher-performing districts.

State Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley has not released spending guidelines for Perry's rule.

The guidelines are expected to be based on federal definitions of instruction spending, which exclude money used to pay for librarians, counselors, nurses, food service and transportation.

According to those who have met with Neeley, the policy will probably set 65 percent as a goal with no sanctions for districts that fail to meet it.

"The definition needs to be one that makes sense to the public and to the business of education," Clark said.; 445-3620

School spending

Gov. Rick Perry's rule will require school districts to spend at least 65 percent of their budgets on instruction. Currently, spending patterns vary across Texas, according to a report released by the Texas Association of School Boards and other education groups, because of local circumstances such as student demographics, geography, resources available and community expectations and needs. These are the percentages spent on instruction in 2003-04:

Spending by district type

Major urban 62.3%

Major suburban 62.4%

Other central city 61.5%

Other central city suburban 59.4%

Independent town 59.6%

Non-metro fast growing 60.0%

Non-metro stable 59.3%

Rural 58.7%

State average 61.2%

Central Texas school districts

Austin 60.6%

Del Valle 61.8%

Eanes 63.7%

Georgetown 66.3%

Lago Vista 64.6%

Lake Travis 64.3%

Leander 61.5%

Manor 59.5%

Pflugerville 63.9%

Round Rock 62.3%

San Marcos 63.0%

Sources: Texas Association of School Boards, Texas Education Agency

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