How much does your public school spend on each student? A local education think tank has released a new interactive tool that shows per-pupil spending across our region. The data reveal a few stark disparities between and even within districts, as well as a gap between charter and traditional public school spending. We speak with the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute about the group’s findings.


  • Michael Petrilli President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute; Author, "Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools."

Metro D.C. School Spending By District

How much does each school in the region spend for each student it enrolls? Find out in this interactive map showing the school-level, per-pupil funding for D.C. area schools.



  • 12:06:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, Montgomery School Superintendent Joshua Starr on overcrowding, changing demographics and a new discipline policy. But first, a related education topic. An education think tank just released an interactive tool that allows you to compare per-student spending for any given school in the D.C. Metro region. Not surprisingly, the data reveals some significant disparities between and even within districts. How much those differences make when it comes to the quality of education in any given school, is a different question and a perennial policy debate.

  • 12:07:37

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss the findings is Michael Petrilli. He is the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. That's an education policy think tank based here in D.C. It just released an interactive tool, the Metro D.C. School Spending Explorer. You can join us by calling 800-433-8850. How much do you think school spending matters? Michael Petrilli, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:02

    MR. MICHAEL PETRILLIGreat to be back, Kojo.

  • 12:08:03

    NNAMDITell us a little bit about this project, the Metro D.C. School Spending Explorer. First, what did you set out to do? Which school districts were included? And where did the data come from?

  • 12:08:13

    PETRILLISure. So this is focused on the major school systems, basically inside the Beltway. So D.C. public schools and the charter schools in the District, plus Montgomery, Fairfax, Prince George's, Arlington and Alexandria. Now, what we wanted to do was to try to figure out what these school systems were spending at each of their schools. That might sound like a pretty easy thing to do, but it turns out it's actually quite difficult. School systems generally don't budget like this. They have a budget for the whole system and then they allocate staff positions to schools. And so if you want to know how much your own child's school actually spends, that information has not been available before.

  • 12:08:56

    NNAMDIYou can find the School Spending Explorer on our website. Just click on a school to see the pupil spending and how it compares to the District as well as to the Metro region as a whole. That's at our website, You can also go there to join this conversation by asking a question or making a comment. One of the bigger issues revealed by this data, Michael, disparities in spending. Prince George's County stands out. The disparity in Prince George's County, which has some pretty poor neighborhoods, can you talk about that?

  • 12:09:29

    PETRILLIYeah, absolutely. You know, first of all, let me tell you some of the good news. The good news is that most of the districts in the area are actually investing quite a lot in their low-income students. That's good news, because we know that those students tend to come into school with a lot of disadvantages. And to remediate those disadvantages takes extra money. You want to have smaller class sizes or extra tutoring. You want to have ways to recruit some of your most experienced teachers. You tend to earn more money to those schools. And what we found was that Arlington and Fairfax and Montgomery, in particular, do quite a good job investing extra dollars in their low-income students.

  • 12:10:09

    PETRILLIBut the story is not so good when it gets to Prince George's. It's just clear that Prince George's simply does not have enough money. Whereas these other districts are spending $13,000, $14,000, $15,000 per child on average, Prince George's spends around $10,000 per child. And they don't seem to be very able to invest extra dollars in their neediest schools. And there are a lot of them. There are 50 schools in Prince George's County where virtually all of the students are low income. It has the greatest concentration of poverty in our region and its schools are the lowest-spending schools in our region. That's a big problem.

  • 12:10:45

    NNAMDIThere's always been a significant debate in Prince George's County over the cap on property taxes. Because there are those who say, that's one of the reasons that the education budget in the county cannot get all that it needs. But I guess that's another discussion for another time.

  • 12:11:00

    PETRILLIWell, it's an important discussion. I mean, there's always this question around school finance. We do, in this country, tend to rely heavily on property taxes. That means that more affluent counties, like Montgomery and Fairfax, have an easier time raising money for their schools than a county like Prince George's. Most states have decided that the state really has to come in and take a big role. Maryland's done some work on that front. But I think it's pretty clear from these data that the State of Maryland needs to do much more.

  • 12:11:27

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Do you think poor districts need more money to ensure educational opportunities for those less advantaged? 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to Our guest is Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, educational policy think tank based here in Washington, which just released an interactive tool called the Metro D.C. Spending Explorer. I would like to get to a bigger question that perhaps might be more difficult to answer. What does spending tell us about the quality of education?

  • 12:12:04

    PETRILLIYou know, I'm glad you asked, Kojo. Because, look, I'll say, coming from a conservative position, which is where I am coming from, I have always been quite skeptical about that connection between spending and outcomes. We know that when you look over many, many years -- over decades, it is hard to find a direct relationship between spending and better outcomes for students. That said, I also would argue that from a basic point of view of fairness, it just doesn't make sense to spend more money on the schools where our affluent kids go than the schools where our poor kids go. And that there are some intangibles that may not show up in terms of test scores that still matter.

  • 12:12:40

    PETRILLIYou know, we need to make sure that low-income kids have just as much opportunity to take advantage of things like arts and music, you know, decent facilities, you know, strong teachers. All these things cost money. So, you know, even as a conservative, I would say it's hard to argue that we should be spending less money on our low-income schools than our affluent schools.

  • 12:13:00

    NNAMDIDoes that explain the fact that Montgomery County Public Schools' rank among the top in Maryland, spends less than the District -- the $12,600, compared with nearly $16,000 per student in the District?

  • 12:13:13

    PETRILLIWell, keep in mind that both Montgomery and the District are high-spending districts when you look nationally. You know, Montgomery does well, but that is largely because of its demographics. Though it has a growing population of low-income students and immigrant students, there are still a lot of middle-class and affluent kids in Montgomery, with very well-educated parents. That helps a whole lot. Yeah, it's so hard to know, Kojo, whether these schools are getting a good bang for the buck. In Maryland, for example, we don't know how much progress kids are making over the course of the school year, because the state has not made that information available.

  • 12:13:48

    PETRILLIThat is going to change starting this spring, when the new common-core aligned tests start. Those tests are going to allow us to look over time at how kids are doing. And you know what else is going to be fun? We'll be able to compare the schools in Montgomery and Prince George's with the schools in the District. And we'll find out which of those schools are actually performing better.

  • 12:14:08

    NNAMDIOn the other hand, funding must matter at some level. A school significantly underfunded -- first, how do we decide that a school is significantly underfunded? But if it is, what might that mean for class size, materials, teachers aides, et cetera?

  • 12:14:23

    PETRILLIYeah, well let me give you an example. There's a -- we looked at this in the analysis. There's a school in D.C. that's in a low-income area of D.C., but that's spending about $15,000 per child, an elementary school. We know that there's a lot of families right now getting pushed out of D.C. because of the gentrification of the city -- getting pushed to Prince George's County. You go across the line to a local elementary school there, the elementary school there spends $7,000 per child. Okay? So about half as much. Well, what is that going to mean?

  • 12:14:52

    PETRILLIFirst of all, it means that the teachers in Prince George's are getting paid significantly less than the teachers in the District. That is likely going to make a difference over time in terms of the kind of talent that you can recruit to the system. It means their class sizes are going to be larger. It's going to mean that there's less money for other stuff, like art and music teachers, school counselors, reading specialists. It means that the facilities may not be as nice. You know, D.C. has spent a ton of money refurbishing its facilities in recent years -- many beautiful facilities now. And so what it means is that, as low-income families get pushed out of the District, they are getting pushed from schools that are -- have beautiful buildings and have a lot of money.

  • 12:15:28

    PETRILLINow, whether or not they're performing well is a different question. But they're getting pushed to schools in Prince George's that have many fewer resources and in many cases are stretched to capacity. Again, it's hard to defend this as something that's going to be good for the cause of equity in this region.

  • 12:15:45

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Ray in Salisbury, Md. Ray, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:49

    RAYYeah. How are you doing? I come from a perspective of being a school board member for 12 years, president of a school board for 7. One of the things we used to look at all the time was the cost of administration -- the cost of administrating the schools. Because our -- what we wanted to do was put money in the classroom because that's, you know, the rubber hits the road in the classroom, not in any public places. It's tough in Maryland because Maryland has -- if read the COMAR in Maryland for schools, it goes on and on and on. And it is tough to administrate in Maryland. But still, that's something that you have to look at.

  • 12:16:26

    RAYAnd sometimes that doesn't get put into the cost of what you spend per pupil. If you spend $10,000 per pupil for schooling, and $5,000 of that goes into the administration, I don't think you get anywhere. So, hey, just a thought. Take care.

  • 12:16:44

    PETRILLIYou also mentioned the beautiful new buildings that exist in the District of Columbia. If that is included as a part of per-pupil spending, how do we know how that relates to instruction?

  • 12:16:53

    PETRILLIRight. And it's not in this analysis. We did not include those capital costs. That's important. There's been a lot of attention to whether charter schools in D.C. or the D.C. public schools get more money. It turns out, on operational expenses alone, it looks like charters get a little more. But they have to spend a huge amount of those operational expenses on rent or on mortgage and the D.C. public schools don't.

  • 12:17:15

    NNAMDIAnd there is a lawsuit that has been filed by a charter school organization against the D.C. public schools, saying that the way the calculation is done is unfair to charter schools.

  • 12:17:25

    PETRILLIYou know, if you include the capital costs that are going on right now in the District, there are some estimates that the District of Columbia Public Schools now spends $30,000 per child -- a huge amount of money. And that is getting you these new buildings, as well as big raises for the teachers, as well as many other things.

  • 12:17:44

    NNAMDII'm wondering if you have any insight as to how our region compares to the rest of the nation when it comes to disparities in spending?

  • 12:17:51

    PETRILLIYou know, it's hard to know. You know, this kind of analysis done at the school level is very new and very unusual. There's only been a few of these studies done because it's so difficult to pin down the school-level costs. I will say, most of the other studies tend to have much more negative findings. Which is that they tend to find that within school districts, districts are actually spending more money on their affluent schools than on their low-income schools. So by that count, districts like Arlington, Montgomery, Fairfax, look pretty good. But frankly, we don't have a great way to compare this.

  • 12:18:21

    NNAMDILet's go to Teresa. Teresa raises the issue of -- or will raise an issue related to the fact that there is a cap on spending on property taxes in Prince George's County. But Teresa now knows that there is a new source of revenue. Teresa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:41

    TERESAOh, thank you, Kojo. And my question is, when they had on the referendum to bring in gambling into Maryland, one of the things that they said, oh, part of that income from gambling into Maryland would go towards the school. Yet, as of today, I still continue to hear there are problems in the school. The school has budget. They have to cut staff. And it continues on and on. No one talks about what percentage of the income from gambling is going towards the school budget.

  • 12:19:18

    NNAMDIMichael Petrilli?

  • 12:19:19

    PETRILLIYeah. No, it's a good question. You know, keep in mind, these data are a couple of years old, as is the case with most education data. So it's possible that things have gotten a little bit better in the last few years. This data goes back to really some of the worst times of the recession, when school budgets were taking a big hit. Those are tending to start to come back. But it's coming back slowly. I mean, this is a big question. And for Prince George's, you know, what I suspect is that the tax rates there are quite high, just as high as in Montgomery. But because the tax base is not as wealthy, they're not able to raise as much money.

  • 12:19:50

    PETRILLIAnd so what you tend to have to do in those situations is the state has got to step in and say, look, we're going to put up more money for these low-income districts, like Prince George's. And I don't think they've done enough.

  • 12:20:00

    NNAMDIIndeed if people want to know why some school systems spend more, you would say the answer is that some have more to spend.

  • 12:20:07

    PETRILLI(laugh) That's exactly right, Kojo. They -- you know, like any government agency, school district spend what they get. And in a place like Montgomery, you know, there's been a lot more money back in the housing boom years. And when the economy was really going gangbusters in the 2000s, tons of money came in and so they spent it. And now, they deserve credit for spending more of that money investing in low-income kids, you know, preschool for low-income kids, smaller class sizes, extra help. So that's good. They deserve credit for that, but they didn't have to make tough choices.

  • 12:20:39

    NNAMDIAlso districts have discretion as to how they will distribute funds across schools. How does that work?

  • 12:20:45

    PETRILLIWell, you know, this is the thing. It's not very transparent. I mean, I suspect that most districts, most even school board members are going to be surprised by these findings. They've never seen it before. Nobody's ever known how much we spend per school. It's all done in a very opaque way.

  • 12:20:58

    PETRILLIYou know, the way they do it is they say, well, we're going to have so many staff members per school, so many teachers. We're going to say, well, we'll have a class size of 25 teachers for every third grade. And so we'll allocate staff. Plus every school gets a music teacher and an art teacher and a gym teacher and the cafeteria workers. And that all gets added up into what they get, maybe extra programs or money for low-income schools. We are trying to pull back -- you know, pull back the blinds here and let people see about how this is actually working.

  • 12:21:27

    NNAMDIJose in Washington, D.C. Jose, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:21:31

    JOSEHey, good afternoon. Thank you for having me on. My wife is a (word?) teacher in D.C. And I wanted to ask your guests, since you're comparing all the schools at DCPS, independent charters and national charters, you know, they can get public and private funding, how that affects if he took those numbers into account when he did his calculation. And that would affect the schools and how they spend money on their children.

  • 12:21:59


  • 12:21:59

    NNAMDISchools that are not funded with public money.

  • 12:22:01

    PETRILLIYeah, well, you know, now these are all publican funded schools. They're all public schools including the public charter schools.

  • 12:22:06


  • 12:22:07

    PETRILLIBut, you know, Jose, you know, his wife is (word?) which is a fantastic chain. They do a ton of fundraising because they need extra money for their programs. We did count that. If that was in the school's general fund, if it even came from private sources we did count that. And that may have pushed up the charter school funding numbers because many of them are forced to raise so much money, again because they're forced to spend so much of their money on rent or on mortgage for buildings whereas the traditional public schools just get those for free.

  • 12:22:38

    NNAMDIAnd we have time for one more call in this segment. Let us go to Ryan in Chevy Chase, Md. Ryan, your turn.

  • 12:22:47

    RYANHello, Kojo. My wife is a teacher in Frederick County and she has a degree in administration, a Master's degree. I live in Gaithersburg in the ghetto and the -- it's the kids -- my kids go to a Title I school. And apparently the mounds of data that my wife is aware of where they throw extra money, which is at the discretion of the principal at a Title I school, makes very little difference in the performance of the kids. So I don't know if you're aware of that but -- and why necessarily, I think the real question is, how do you educate parents of socioeconomically-challenged children that it is important that they do their homework or they perform well.

  • 12:23:37

    NNAMDIMichael Petrilli.

  • 12:23:37

    PETRILLIWell, you know, I think Ryan raises the essential point which is that the only way this money is going to matter is if you spend it well and you invest it in things that work. You know, we have learned some things in recent decades that some investments are more important than others. For example, individual tutoring, it is an intervention that's expensive but tends to have big payoff. Smaller class sizes maybe in the earliest grades is something that could be helpful. Making sure teachers get the training they need around reading instruction.

  • 12:24:05

    PETRILLII mean, these are pieces that -- you know, this issue around parents? Frankly there hasn't been a lot of parenting programs that have shown to be terribly effective but is something that's always worth trying. I mean, there's no doubt that the parents are a huge part of this puzzle and we've got to do better there too.

  • 12:24:20

    NNAMDIMichael Petrilli is the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute an education policy think tank based in Washington. They just released an interactive tool, the Metro D.C. School Spending Explorer. You can go to our website and find the school spending explorer. Just click on a school to see the pupil spending and how it compares to the district as well as to the metro region as a whole. Michael, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:24:44

    PETRILLIThanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:24:45

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break . When we come back, Montgomery School Superintendent Joshua Starr. Enough said. Start calling now, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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