As a new school year begins, public schools across the country are opening their doors to tens of millions of students. Education is not free, however, and it is up to taxpayers to foot the bill. U.S. school districts spend an average of $11,009 per pupil a year.
A range of factors affect per pupil spending, and unique circumstances in different regions of the country mean that per pupil spending can vary drastically from one school district to another. Some districts spend more than three times the national average per student. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed spending across U.S. school districts to identify the districts that are spending the most per student. New York’s Pocantico Hills Central School District spends $63,760 per student each year, far more than any other district in the country.
In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Michael Griffith, school finance strategist for the policy think tank the Education Commission of the States, explained that the biggest cost driver for school districts is salaries and benefits of the administration and staff. Depending on the district, as much as 65% of the annual budget goes to teachers’ compensation, and another 15% goes towards paying everybody else, from cafeteria workers to the district superintendent.
How much teachers are paid depends largely on local economic forces. Certain parts of the country have higher costs of living and consequently require higher salaries to attract and retain teachers. “It’s expensive to live in the Northeast; It’s expensive to live in California; It’s expensive in Alaska — so we tend to see those places spending a higher amount per pupil,” Griffith said. Indeed, each of the 10 school districts spending the most per pupil are located either in the Northeast or Alaska.
The size of the student body also plays a significant role in per pupil spending. “When [districts] get below about 1,500 kids, (they) start showing additional costs per pupil — it really picks up when you get below 500,” Griffith explained. Below the 1,500 student threshold, teachers are instructing smaller classes, contributing to a higher overall per-student cost. Enrollment in half of the 10 school districts with the highest per pupil expenditures is less than 1,500 students.
American public schools receive on average about 9% of their revenue from federal sources, 47% from state sources, and 45% from local sources. In many of the school districts spending the most, these proportions are drastically different. According to Griffith, New York does very little to regulate how much revenue school districts can raise locally. As a result, six of the top spending districts are in wealthy neighborhoods in Long Island and Westchester County and get an outsized share — from 73% to 93% — of revenue from local sources. On the other hand, top spending school districts in Alaska, while not always affluent, receive most of their funding from state coffers padded with oil and natural gas revenue.
To identify the 10 American school districts spending the most per pupil, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed annual per pupil expenditures across the 9,605 U.S. school districts serving at least 250 students from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of School System Finances. School spending figures and all other district-based values are as of the end of 2014 and come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of School System Finances. Graduation rates come from National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
These are the school districts spending the most per student.
Correction: In a previous version of this article the source for annual per pupil expenditures was incorrectly cited as the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). In fact, annual per pupil expenditures for U.S. school districts came from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of School System Finances.