School Budgets and Classroom Teachers

It’s school budget season again. Last week, after the Board of Supervisors adopted the county’s budget, the School Board had to decide how to reduce school spending by $17 million from the Superintendent’s original request. This is an annual ritual. The Superintendent asked for a budget increase to pay for rising enrollment and new, often desperately needed, programs like full-day kindergarten. The Board of Supervisors resisted raising the property tax rate enough to meet the full request, as county voters are fairly concerned about a larger tax bill, so the School Board ended up deciding what the schools should do without.

The final cuts that were being debated were, as usual, related to programs that are considered expendable or optional. This year, for example, the debate was about how many family life education (FLE) teachers to retain and whether to shed, as the state’s wealthiest county, the ignominious distinction of being one of only three school divisions in Virginia without full-day kindergarten.

Instead, I submit that our attention as voters should be on the most important funding question: how much do we invest on teachers in the classroom?

I suspect most of us pay only cursory attention to the annual budget dance between the Supervisors, School Board, and Superintendent, and only the odd duck looks at the numbers in detail to see what it costs to run our schools and where, specifically, the money goes. My goal is to be the odd duck to figure out how much goes to teachers, and, given what I do everyday, how that number compares with independent day schools. I think you’ll find the comparison interesting. And, aside from taking the position that what matters most is how much money goes to full time teachers in the classroom--both to hire and retain the most qualified teachers and to reduce class sizes--I don’t take a position about whether LCPS should spend more or less.

Here is a quick overview of the Loudoun County appropriated school budget for the current fiscal year (FY16). All of these numbers are drawn from the 541-page budget document the county published for FY16.

Table 1. LCPS FY16 Appropriated Schools Budget by Fund and Category

Money for K-12 education in the county comes from a mix of sources, and varies for each of the five funds. The Operating Fund, for example, which accounts for 78 percent of all money spent on schools in FY 2016, comes from the following sources: 67 percent from Loudoun County, almost 30 percent from Virginia, and just over 1 percent from the federal government. Most people are surprised to see how little federal money goes into K-12 schools, particularly in affluent jurisdictions. But, in our federal system, education is almost entirely a state function.

When the FY16 budget was approved, student enrollment was 75,755. The country lists “FY16 budgeted cost per pupil” at $12,700. This number is misleading, however, because when you divide the total appropriated budget by the number of students, the annual cost per pupil is actually $16,608. I will use this number going forward, as it reflects all five funds: operating expenditures, capital improvements, debt service, nutrition, and capital asset preservation. By comparison, that number was $27,000 last year at our school, and $21,196 at independent day schools nationally. Please note that (1) public schools have less to spend per pupil than the median independent school, even though public schools provide many services independent schools do not (e.g., busing, subsidized food, medical personnel), and (2) parents who pay for private schools in Virginia do so while also funding public schools, as there is no tuition tax credit.

The public schools have 10,202 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees for the current fiscal year, with 58 percent being classroom teachers. By comparison, at our school, 74 percent of FTE employees are classroom teachers. This is, in part, because we don’t have entire categories of employees that account for almost 40 percent of total personnel in LCPS (i.e. non-school based staff, bus drivers, teachers assistants, custodians, and medical personnel). Interestingly, only 53 percent of staff members at independent schools nationally are teachers.

We’re now getting closer to what I consider the most important number in education: how much money is spent per pupil on classroom teachers (not including assistants). Of the roughly $981 million in operating expenses, about 80 percent ($781 million) is listed as spending on “instruction.” Trying to understand how much of this goes to teachers, however, is not a simple matter.

There is the $781 million listed for “instruction” in the budget, and then there is the Department of Instruction, which was appropriated about $565 million. There are 31 divisions within this Department (e.g., Adult Education, Art, Elementary Education, etc.), but many of these divisions do not employ any classroom teachers. Going through all the divisions, my estimate of what LCPS spends on teachers in the classroom is in Table 2. I acknowledge up front that these numbers are only rough estimates, and are based only on a review of the country’s FY16 appropriated budget document.

Table 2. Estimate of LCPS FY16 Expenditures on Classroom Teachers.

NOTES: These are all the classroom teachers I could find in the LCPS FY16 budget document (except for one listed under “Student Services,” which I excluded). I assume, incorrectly of course, that every employee in every division is paid the same salary, because there is no other way to make the calculation of how much is spent on the classroom teachers in each division. Also, special education is listed under the Department of Pupil Services, not the Department of Instruction, but I include special education classroom teachers when estimating the county’s total spending on classroom teachers.

Based on my review of the county’s numbers, I estimate that the county spends about $484 million on classroom teachers, or about 38 percent of the total budget, which amounts to $6,400 per pupil. At our school last year, we spent $12,100 per pupil on classroom teachers, which was about 45 percent of total annual costs. At independent day schools nationally, the median numbers were $9,058 and 43 percent.

Whether the county should spend more or less on public education, and, more specifically, whether a larger part of the school budget should go to classroom teachers, by making cuts in other areas, are questions for the Board of Supervisors and the School Board. For now, I hope this brief overview has shed some light on how much of the school budget goes to teachers in the classroom. My numbers are rough estimates, but going through this exercise I am reminded to look carefully at the numbers before jumping to any conclusions about whether we are spending too much or too little on public education, and whether we are spending the money we have in ways that are actually going to improve student learning outcomes.

During budget season, I encourage county voters to look beyond the programs at the margins that get the most attention and to focus instead on how much we spend on putting great teachers in every classroom.

This article was published in Loudoun Now on April 21, 2016.