Local: Education

Washington area spends big bucks on its students

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Local,DC,Maryland,Virginia,Education,Matt Connolly

D.C. public schools spent $18,475 per student in fiscal 2011, more than any state outside of New York, according to census data released Tuesday.

Among the country's 100 public school systems with the most students, Montgomery and Prince George's counties placed fourth and ninth. Montgomery spends $15,421 per student, while Prince George's pays out $13,775.

Class acts
Top states
Per pupil spending, fiscal 2011
New York $19,076
D.C. $18,475
Alaska $16,674
New Jersey $15,968
Vermont $15,925
Wyoming $15,849
Connecticut $15,600
Massachusetts $13,941
Maryland $13,871
Rhode Island $13,815
Top large school districts
Per pupil spending, fiscal 2011
New York City $19,770
Boston $19,181
Baltimore $15,483
Montgomery County $15,421
Howard County $15,139
Anchorage $14,466
Milwaukee $14,244
Columbus $14,213
Prince George's $13,775
Atlanta $13,631
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

New York City's schools topped the list at $19,770, while Baltimore placed third at $15,483 and Howard County fifth at $15,139.

"Many of the school systems in the top of that list are from Maryland, where there's a strong investment in education statewide," said Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Dana Tofig. "The data shows what we know -- the citizens of Montgomery County invest in public education, which is a good thing, and I think they've gotten a good return on that investment."

Per-pupil spending in the smaller Arlington County and Alexandria was greater than that in both Maryland counties, at $16,375 and $17,759, respectively. Fairfax County spent $12,499 per student in 2011 -- well above the $10,560 national average but behind its neighbors.

Alexandria was the only local school district in which per-pupil spending rose from fiscal 2010. Montgomery and Prince George's spending dropped despite a Maryland law requiring school districts to spend at least the same amount per student from one year to the next. While the drops came during a recession that crippled county budgets, school systems can apply for waivers if the county's financial situation "significantly impedes" such spending.

Tofig said a record number of Montgomery students, with more requiring pricier services like free lunches and English as a Second Language classes, makes for tighter budgets.

"There are more students coming to us with specific needs, so we're going to have to continue to invest wisely," he said, adding that the county's surging enrollment will continue to climb in the next five years.

About one-third of Montgomery's 149,051 students receive free or reduced-price lunches, up from 26 percent five years ago. In Fairfax, nearly 27 percent of the schools' 179,253 students receive free or reduced-price lunch, up from 21 percent five years ago. Experts say those numbers will keep rising in the near future.

The District topped the nation in per-pupil spending last year, having unseated New York. A spokeswoman for DC Public Schools said officials were reviewing the census data.

Since most school districts have a similar number of administrators who are normally their highest-paid employees, administrator salaries have an outsize effect on the per-pupil spending rates of smaller systems like D.C. and Arlington, according to Education Sector senior vice president and former Fairfax County school board member Kristen Amundson.

High-performing districts like Montgomery and Arlington pay teachers well, she said, while lower-performing ones like D.C. and Prince George's keep salaries up to try to attract a better crop of educators.

"What you're seeing in part [is] the fact that Montgomery County has continued to give teachers raises for the past couple of years and Fairfax hasn't done that [for] a while," Amundson said. "Personnel costs typically amount to about 85 percent of a district's budget, and teachers are generally a big chunk of that."

Instructor salaries and benefits made up 63.5 percent of Montgomery's $2,223,096 in 2011 spending, compared with 60.7 percent of Fairfax's $2,198,463, according to census data. Both led the region in spending on instruction.

While D.C. spent the smallest percentage on teachers in 2011 -- 54.1 percent of its $970,843 in spending -- the District's many under-capacity schools keep per-student costs high.

"When you're operating a number of facilities not at peak capacity, you end up with high costs and not much to show for it in terms of student achievement," Amundson said. "They're running old, antiquated, underutilized buildings -- they're probably just spending more keeping boilers running."

D.C. officials are planning to close 13 schools next month and two next year.

mconnolly@washingtonexaminer.com

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