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How is Money Spent on Education Actually Used?

Public education is one of the most expensive institutions funded by state coffers, particularly because most children in a given state use public education for 12 or so years. U.S. elementary and secondary schools spent roughly $610.1 billion in total expenditures in 2008-09, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But where exactly does money spent on education go? There are numerous types of expenses related to public education, including the buildings themselves; textbooks; supplies; and the salaries of teachers and staff.

Different states, and indeed different districts within each state, often prioritize certain needs over others. Additionally, school districts in poorer neighborhoods face much more difficult budget decisions than their more affluent counterparts. But the following article is intended to provide a general overview of how money spent on education is actually used.

Typical School Expenditures

While different districts may have different expenses, most schools have the same basic costs:

  • Instruction: Teachers' salaries and benefits are generally the most expensive elements of a school, and schools typically use most of their budgets to cover these costs.
  • Operation and Maintenance: A school cannot function if its physical plant is in poor repair. This money helps pay for building maintenance, janitors, and other building expenses.
  • Construction: Many schools need to expand to accommodate larger student populations, and new classrooms with specialized equipment, such as science labs or computer rooms, need to be constructed.
  • Pupil Services: This money pays for support staff such as librarians, school nurses, and other professionals hired to accommodate student needs.
  • Food: School lunches and breakfasts often provide much needed nutrition to food-insecure students.
  • Administration: Principals, secretaries, and other professionals to help the schools run smoothly.
  • Transportation: Schools often have a duty to provide transportation to get their students to and from school.
  • Interest on Debt: Many school districts have to borrow money to make their budget, and interest payments represent a significant portion of school budgets.
  • Instructional Equipment: This category includes whiteboards, markers, projectors, erasers, and other materials used in the classroom.

Many school districts total their expenditures and divide by the number of students in the district to determine "per pupil" expenses. Per-pupil expenses range from $6,000 in some Utah districts to $19,000 in Washington, D.C.

Restricted v. Non-Restricted Money

School administrators do not have complete discretion when deciding how to allocate funds. Some of the money that flows into the school district is already earmarked for some purpose. For example, a football booster club may donate tens of thousands of dollars to a local school district in order to build a new football field, bleachers, and a scoreboard. Alternatively, a parent-run foundation may give money to a school district in order to purchase new science equipment. Schools are then required to use that money for these limited purposes.

For more information, see FindLaw's sections on School Curriculum Basics and Competency Testing.

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