123’s of Per-Pupil Spending

Yesterday’s blog outlined some of the important characteristics of the FY2012 budget for the Pittsburgh Public Schools. The superintendent’s budget message noted "even as the City of Pittsburgh’s population has declined, the number of students attending Pittsburgh Public Schools has declined even faster".

In 2001 enrollment was 37,612; in 2010 it was 27,132. Based on operating expenditures, the cost per pupil in the District rose from $12,840 to $20.686. When total expenditures-capital and debt service-are figured in, the per pupil cost stood at $23,224 in 2010.

Operating expenditures for the coming year are $529 million, down from this year’s projected total of $540 million, but until enrollment numbers are released it will be undetermined whether per pupil cost will stand. Over the decade of audited numbers per pupil spending has never fallen year over year.

Pittsburgh’s School Buildings to Go Under the Microscope

The Pittsburgh Public Schools has seating capacity for 36k students, but it only utilizing 25k of it, roughly 70%. That means another round of school closures, the first since 2006 when the public school count went from 86 in 2005 to 65 in 2006. In the decade from 2000-09, enrollment fell from 38k to 27k (28%) while the number of schools decreased from 96 to 66 (31%).

Seeing this imbalance, the superintendent noted that "every dollar we spend on underutilized bricks and mortar is one less dollar we have available to spend towards improving the life prospects of our students". Note that the District’s per-pupil cost in 2009 was $19,963, up 11% from where it stood in 2006.

The process in 2011 will use data like student achievement, enrollment, facility condition, racial balance, transportation costs, etc. to decide what to shutter and what to keep open.

Here’s how the overall facility inventory for the District looks: In 2000, the District had 100 buildings (96 schools, 2 administration buildings, 1 operations/maintenance building, and 1 food service building) with 9.5 million square feet (about 247 square feet per student). In 2009, the District had 71 buildings (66 schools, 3 administration buildings, 1 operations/maintenance building and 1 food service building) totaling 7.3 million square feet (263 square feet per student). We have noted the growth in administrative employees (non-teachers) so it is no surprise that more space was needed to house them. Whereas the District carried about 129k of square footage for administration during most of the decade; that amount tripled to 390k in 2008.

Few Beat Pittsburgh on School Spending

New research from the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) looks at school spending and the share attributed to actual instruction on a per-pupil basis. Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the analysis examines how the amount spent on actual instruction decreases when items like capital spending are added in.

The NCES data shows spending for the 100 largest school districts in the country (according to enrollment) and their per-pupil spending based on their most recent budget. Pittsburgh is not one of the top 100, but based on their 2011 budget (which includes instruction, instructional support, support, debt, other, non-instructional, and facilities) the total comes to $540.9 million. With 27,132 students, the per-pupil expenditure works out to $19,935.

Not many districts in the top 100 list compiled by NCES top that amount. Boston ($21,878) does; New York ($19,260) and DC ($18,652) are in the neighborhood; cross-state Philadelphia ($16,389) is 20% lower.

How about just when instruction is counted? With $285 million of the $540.9 million budget devoted to "instruction" the per-student expense in Pittsburgh is $10,677. Only two districts, the aforementioned Boston ($11,737) and New York ($13,529) bested the Steel City.

Sure, with more than 14,000 school districts in the U.S. there are likely to be examples out there where spending exceeds Pittsburgh’s on total and on instruction. But in this cohort of districts that is not the case.

Pittsburgh Schools Fail to Hit Progress Targets

Once again, Pittsburgh’s eleventh graders point to the failure that is the City’s school system. Because these students were unable to improve their scores on the state’s assessment tests, the District will not hit the modest Federal standards of adequate yearly progress. And adequate yearly progress is easiest to achieve when the students are already at low performance levels. Moreover, hitting an adequate yearly progress target does not mean students are doing well-just that they have made some improvement.

But the big issue here is Pittsburgh high schools’ abject inability to make progress despite program after program, spending vast amounts of money and launching the Promise Program. As we have pointed out repeatedly, why is progress at grade three or five ballyhooed as evidence that school policies are working when students near graduation continue to fall well below minimal requirements? It’s the equivalent of focusing on drawing up plans to build a house and then failing to pay attention to the flaws in actual construction. The house will turn out poorly and the money spent on plans will have been wasted.

Little wonder school enrollment continues to decline. Not even the promise of college tuition money for anyone who graduates is helping to boost scores or enrollment. Indeed, the Promise Program, rather than creating incentives to do well, is for many students probably being viewed as another entitlement that requires little or no effort on their part and for some formerly serious students could be seen as removing the need to work really hard in order to qualify for financial aid upon entering college.

As long as the school district and its defenders refuse to face up to their real problem they will never develop a way to get better. The schools and the community should welcome and adopt vouchers that will allow students who truly want to learn an opportunity to escape the education nightmare that exists in many City schools.

Pittsburgh School Board Chooses Self-Preservation over Education

In what has to be an action that completely captures all that is wrong with Pittsburgh Schools, the Board is refusing to sell an abandoned school building to a charter school organization. The reason? It will create competition and could further reduce the City Schools’ enrollment. Once again the Board has demonstrated what we have been saying for years. They care more about preserving a failed, outrageously expensive system than promoting the educational attainment of Pittsburgh’s children-something they are legally and constitutionally required to do.

The irony is this comes on the heels of receiving the Gates Foundation award with all the usual self-congratulations about how remarkably well the District is doing to foster better education approaches and the rise in academic achievement. Further, over the past three years, we have heard the Superintendent laud ad nausea the District’s achievements.

So why is the Board worried about competition siphoning off enrollment? The answer should be obvious. They know in their hearts that all the recent hoopla about Gates and the miniscule progress made by early grade students is a smokescreen covering up the abject failure that is Pittsburgh Schools and its near $20,000 per pupil annual expenditures. Almost any education option will be superior to what passes for schooling in the Pittsburgh schools and can probably be done in a safer more disciplined environment a la the Extra Mile Schools.

Too many years of protecting the status quo and allowing the teachers’ union and educrats manage and guide the District has produced the system that now exists. A system that hangs on by turning back every meaningful reform and proving perennially that self-preservation is more important than the futures of the children it is entrusted with. It is beyond disgraceful.