Getting to the Bottom of Where the Money Goes

A Student-Level Analysis of Resource Allocation

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We know that different school districts spend vastly different amounts per pupil—anywhere from $8,400 in Charlotte to over $20,000 in Newark. We also know that funding varies across schools within a district. But it's typically difficult to calculate how much each district spends on each individual student—whether Daniella gets more resources than David, or certain groups get more than others.

However, ERS has collected an extensive database of student-level data through our nearly 10 years of working closely with some of the largest urban districts in America. This includes information on teacher salaries, course schedules, and class sizes. Recently, education researcher Rebecca Wolf analyzed data from one large urban school district (with more than 40,000 students) to see how resources were allocated to individual students. She found three main things:

  • Different students within the same school receive quite different resources: In fact, the vast majority of variation in per-pupil spending across the district happened within schools (86.5%), not between them (13.5%).
  • Higher-achieving students get more resources: This is because higher-achieving students tend to get more experienced—and thus higher-paid—teachers, and in some cases, smaller class sizes (where the teacher’s salary is split among fewer students, resulting in a higher per-pupil cost). Across the board, the district spends 15% more to educate high and average achieving students compared to the lowest achieving group. In some schools the differential was dramatic—one school spent 44% more on teacher salaries for white and Asian students with high or average achievement than on African American students with low achievement.
  • Resource investment may not align with district goals: Most school districts are committed to equity and want to send more resources to students with greater academic needs, but this research shows that that might not be happening de facto in schools.

These findings do not mean that the district should necessarily move all extra dollars from high-achieving students to low-achieving students; there are often good reasons to offer smaller and more advanced classes with more experienced teachers to exceptional students. On the other hand, if the district’s main goal is to advance student achievement across the board, particularly for students who are often underserved, it does highlight the need to ensure students receive the resources they deserve. A few of Wolf’s suggestions:

  • District and school leaders should examine resource-allocation patterns with an eye to individual students, when possible.
  • District and school leaders should reconsider teacher assignment practices to make sure that all students have access to experienced and highly effective teachers—including incentivizing those teachers to take on classes at all levels.
  • District and school leaders should flag courses with small class sizes or high per-pupil expenditures and look carefully at whether those classes meet district goals.

At ERS, we encourage districts to explore alternatives for giving students access to smaller, advanced, or specialized courses. Many can be offered in more cost-effective ways—perhaps through partnerships with local non-profits (like arts organizations or the YMCA), through technology and distance learning, or through sharing teachers across schools.

We are very excited that Wolf has been able to make use of our student-level databases in this way, and we welcome working with other researchers. Contact us if you have a research project you'd like to pursue.

Getting to the Bottom of Where the Money Goes: A Student-Level Analysis of Resource Allocation (PDF)