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2017-03-29 / News

Per pupil funding: How the county stacks up

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER

In last year’s Blueprint Chesterfield survey (a county initiative to increase citizen participation in the budget), participants named three areas they wanted the county to focus on during the next five years: education, roads/ transportation and public safety.

Nearly two-thirds of the 6,200 participants wanted more focus and funding for education, listing better pay for teachers, smaller class sizes and investment in lower-performing schools as goals. Now, as the School Board and the Board of Supervisors work to finalize the fiscal year 2018 budget, it raises the question: How does funding for Chesterfield’s schools compare to other localities?

As school system sizes vary widely, a look at the total budget figure says little. So breaking it down per pupil is one metric scholars use for comparison.

According to the most recent data available from the Virginia Department of Education, $9,496 was spent per pupil in Chesterfield for the 2014-15 school year, drawing from local, state and federal sources. That figure is slightly higher than Henrico’s $9,305 per pupil, but roughly $4,000 less than Richmond’s $13,413. Chesterfield’s number is also roughly $2,000 less than the state average of $11,523. But trying to discern what these figures mean is also complicated. Each year, the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education publishes its Quality Counts report in its journal Education Week. Part of that report compares per pupil spending between states and localities.

“Per pupil spending is probably the most high-profile metric that we have,” says Sterling Lloyd, senior research associate for Editorial Projects in Education. “Research is sort of split on the precise role of spending per student. There really isn’t consensus. You have some studies that say spending more money will produce better achievement, other studies that say it doesn’t. That said, there is agreement that if there’s more money to go around, that makes more of a difference for teachers in the classroom.”

A number of variables complicate drawing conclusions from the raw figures. A city with a high level of poverty might receive more federal funding, for instance.

“Some students require greater resources to educate,” Lloyd says. “We find that students in high poverty, English language learners, students with disabilities often require additional resources to address some disadvantages that they face.”

Similarly, a county in Northern Virginia might pay their teachers a higher salary than Chesterfield because the cost of living is higher. Fairfax County and Fairfax City spent nearly $5,000 more per pupil than Chesterfield in the 2014-15 school year, according to VDOE data.

“[Per pupil figures] can be very misleading, because it’s not necessarily a true comparison of how the needs of the different communities are being served,” says Jon Valant, a fellow with the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Usually, teachers make up the largest single portion of any school system budget, and rightfully so, Valant says.

“What hits powerfully when it comes to school budgets is what you pay teachers, what teachers’ benefits look like, and what classrooms look like, how many teachers per pupil,” Valant says.

This month, the School Board submitted a budget to the Board of Supervisors for approval that would spend $10,487 per pupil next school year. This school year, the school system is spending $10,155 per pupil.

In response to questions about per pupil funding and comparing it to the state average, and whether there are programs or new facilities it would like to create with more funding, CCPS spokesman Shawn Smith sent the following statement: “Chesterfield County Public Schools’ daily expectation is that students are provided a high-quality learning experience in a safe, supportive and nurturing learning environment. … We will continue to invest our resources and ensure we are good stewards with the resources we are provided.”

School Board chairman and Midlothian District member Javaid Siddiqi deferred to the school system’s statement.

At a statewide level, Education Week gave Virginia a D-rating for its education spending using data from 2014. Though its score of 64.9 might seem low, it’s actually better than the national average score of 62.5 (Washington, D.C., and Hawaii are not included in the report).

“If you look at the big picture, Virginia really mirrors the nation in respect to school finance,” Lloyd says. “The nation isn’t doing that well in regards to school spending.” ¦

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