Money down the drain
With the 2009-10 school year for the Clark County School District under way, citizens, pundits, journalists, policymakers and insiders will scrutinize the spending and performance of the district, and rightly so. We all have a right to know how much is spent and how well the district educates students.
Unfortunately, the fact that the district has so many funding sources can make the topic of how much we spend a very confusing one. Yet it needn't be, because the Clark County School District publishes its budget online. Indeed, all CCSD budget-related publications can be found at http://ccsd.net/directory/budget-finance/publications/.
When NPRI examined CCSD's 2009-10 budget, the Institute found that the district's general-operating-fund expenditures would be $6,867 per weighted pupil, a 4.9 percent decrease from the previous year. But a focus only on the general operating budget would ignore a substantial amount of spending.
Specifically, it would not only ignore capital projects and debt service (two of the largest funds outside of the general fund) but also federal funds, district project funds, food service funds and internal service funds.
For the 2009-10 school year, CCSD will spend $152 million using federal funds. Federal funding helps provide additional money for disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, reading programs, learning centers and more.
The district's special projects funding includes dollars for classroom-size reduction, adult high school programs, professional development, technological upgrades, Vegas PBS, remedial-education programs and the full-day kindergarten program. Expenditures of $178 million are slated from this fund.
Food services for public education are budgeted at $82 million, while approximately $25 million will go toward internal services.
So how much is the Clark County School District really spending?
For the 2009-10 school year, CCSD will spend $3.731 billion providing education for just over 303,000 weighted students — a number that most likely will decrease. Total expenditures, thus, will come to at least $12,307 per pupil. While that is an 8.9 percent decrease from the previous year, it still is a substantial sum devoted to education.
To better understand the real priorities of the school district, however, let's break that total into its parts.
Of the $3.7 billion, CCSD will spend $649 million repaying debt. This breaks out as $2,143 per pupil going toward debt repayment. Total debt for the district, with interest, balloons to $6,428,470,473. In other words, for every student currently enrolled, CCSD owes $21,203 in principal and interest.
CCSD will also spend $671 million, or $2,214 per pupil, on capital projects. With approximately $4,357 per pupil spent on debt and capital projects, CCSD desperately needs to figure out ways to reduce these expenditures to save taxpayers money or to make more funds available for use in the classroom.
One way the district could do that would be to expand charter schools (privately run public schools). Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, must use the private sector to fund school buildings. NPRI estimates that in the 2008-09 school year, the average charter school in Clark County received about $6,519 per pupil from the state. These funds went not only toward general operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, but were also used to repay debt and maintain campus facilities. Operating under such constraints, charter schools become far more efficient in using the limited resources available to them.
Another route the district could take to savings would be to give empowerment schools (public schools allowed autonomy over most of their expenditures) budget responsibility for grounds-keeping, the maintenance of campus infrastructure and more.
Yet another option that would save taxpayers significant sums would be to simply assist Nevada parents in sending their children to private schools via vouchers, scholarships and tuition tax credit programs — something surveys have shown parents would do if they could. To compare private-school and CCSD costs, NPRI excluded expenditures using bond revenues, as such expenditures are later counted repaid under debt services. Under this approach, CCSD still spends $10,583 per pupil.
According to estimates from the U.S. Department of Education, the weighted average private-school tuition for the 2003-04 school year was $7,725 (adjusted for inflation to 2009 dollars). Interestingly, only 15 percent of private-school students in 2003-04 attended private schools that charged tuitions higher than $10,000 a year. Indeed, only 32 percent of private-school students would have attended a private school that charged more than $6,000 a year (approximately $7,000 in 2009 dollar values).
In terms of cost, CCSD's general-operations expenditure of $6,867 per pupil and total spending of more than $10,000 per pupil place the district among fairly elite private schools.
With some market-oriented education reforms — creating the right incentives for teachers and administrators — the elite level of spending could produce elite-level results.
Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.