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Counting the Cash for K-12: The Facts about Per-Pupil Spending in Colorado

IB-2006-A (March 2006)
Author: Benjamin DeGrow

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Selected statistics often are cited to argue for more funding increases to Colorado’s K-12 public schools. Yet evidence from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and other reliable sources adds needed clarity to the discussion. Most notable is the lack of a relationship between total spending and academic outcome, as witnessed by the following facts:

  • According to a comprehensive analysis, two-thirds of relevant studies show no link between increasing total dollars spent and achieving classroom success, while several studies show a negative relationship
  • No significant correlation can be made between states’ total per-pupil funding in 2002-03 and their resulting 2003 scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress
  • From 1992 to 2003, 27 of 42 states with available testing data increased per-pupil spending more than Colorado: of the 27 states, only Delaware also showed greater gains than Colorado in 4th-grade reading scores

Even so, Colorado’s K-12 education spending places it among the middle of all states:

  • The most complete picture of resources spent ranked Colorado 26th in total expenditures per pupil: $8,917 in 2002-03
  • Three different sources for current expenditures per pupil, which exclude debt financing and capital construction costs, place Colorado anywhere from 25th to 31st in 2002-03
  • The assertion that Colorado ranks 49th in school spending is not only outdated (45th is current) but also is based on the assumption that the more money taxpayers earn, the more they should spend on K-12 education: New Mexico ranks in the top 10 in this category but spends less per pupil than Colorado

Finally, Colorado continues to grow K-12 education spending (all figures adjusted for inflation):

  • Colorado increased total per-pupil expenditures more quickly than most states during the 1970s and less quickly than most states in the 1980s and 1990s, but both Colorado and the nation as a whole roughly doubled per-pupil spending from 1970 to 2000
  • From 1988-89 to 2002-03 Colorado’s total per-pupil spending grew by more than 17 percent, despite limitations on taxation and government growth set by the Gallagher Amendment and Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR)
  • The Colorado General Assembly appropriated more dollars per student in the 2004-05 school year than at any previous point in state history

Interest groups that seek higher funding for K-12 public education use selective—often misleading—statistics to make their case. However, an honest and thorough look at the facts should move the school funding discussion away from expanded subsidies toward more efficient attainment of successful outcomes. Colorado’s education leaders have the chance to make the state a leader in how schools use resources.