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State Data Show Colorado 10-Year K-12 Funding Trends Still Going Up

Not many people out there get the joy out of school funding figures, but understanding them clearly is crucial to the debate. Part of the problem? Depending on which source you look at, per-pupil spending and revenue data don’t always line up, something my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow pointed out in his 2006 backgrounder Counting the Cash.

Last month, when the U.S. Census Bureau released its Public Education Finances report (PDF) for the 2009-10 school year, the Business Journals Network dryly proclaimed, “Public schools spending rose in fiscal 2010.”

Interestingly enough, that’s not as much of a “dog bites man” headline as it would be for most years. Thinking back to 2009-10 (I was 5 then… big shock), and the recessionary effects of the financial crisis on tax revenues, it’s somewhat remarkable that spending rose nationwide. Of course, the borrowed spending of federal stimulus dollars chipped in. When are we going to be able to pay for it all? That’s another story for another day.

Anyway, somewhat less shocking is the response analysis of the Colorado School Finance Project (COSFP), a group that makes a living off habitual claims that Colorado K-12 education is underfunded. Their latest output shows they still have an obsessive focus on comparing Colorado to the national average, but at least the new graphs show actual spending increases over time rather than distorting the national average into a straight line.

COSFP’s most serious claim that catches the attention? Colorado K-12 per-pupil spending levels have not caught up to their peak of 2007-08. Even as spending dropped in 2008-09, the rate of teachers to enrolled students still grew. It will be interesting to see whether Census Bureau figures show that trend continuing into 2009-10.

But other than the desire to attempt to show where Colorado ranks vis a vis other states, why rely on the Census Bureau data alone? The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) calculated $120 million more in “current expenditures” (everything but capital and debt) for 2009-10 than did the Census Bureau, and more than a cool extra billion in total spending. Part of that problem trying to reconcile data from two different credible sources.

CDE also is a whole year ahead of the Census Bureau in collecting and reporting K-12 funding numbers, so we can see where we were at in 2010-11. Adjusted for inflation, current Colorado K-12 spending comes in at just over $9,800 per pupil, total spending more than $11,500 for each student.

While COSFP shows how much less Colorado has spent over the past decade than the national average, my Education Policy Center friends compiled this 10-year trend data from CDE to show how revenues and spending for Colorado K-12 schools have grown in real dollars across the board:

  • Total per pupil spending has grown nearly 15 percent;
  • Current per pupil spending has risen by 26.9 percent;
  • Dollars spent on instruction have increased by 9.3 percent per student;
  • Money spent per student on administrator salaries and benefits went up 20 percent;
  • Local tax revenues collected per student climbed 11.2 percent; and
  • State and federal funds appropriated rose at more than twice the rate of 22.7 percent.

Of course, in the end, none of this gets to the question of whether we are spending too much, not enough, or about the right amount. Increased spending is far from a guarantee of improved outcomes. Before we talk about desperate situations that somehow necessitate more tax increases for overburdened families and struggling businesses, Colorado’s broken school funding system first needs to be drastically changed to productively fund student learning success.

If last year’s K-12 finances were that far ahead of where they were a decade earlier, I think we can find a way to make that kind of change work.