Public-school spending is on average 44 percent higher than officially reported, according to a new report from the Cato Institute’s Adam Schaeffer. Analyzing district budgets and state records from the country’s five largest metro areas and the District of Columbia, he finds those districts spent an average of nearly $18,000 per student but claimed to spend just $12,500. On average, public-school spending is 93 percent more than the estimated median private school for those areas. According to Schaeffer, “Real spending per pupil ranges from a low of nearly $12,000 in the Phoenix area schools to a high of nearly $27,000 in the New York metro area.”  

This kind of “dishonest accounting,” says Schaeffer, “is a nationwide problem.” The lack of transparency and common district-level reporting standards means politically sensitive figures such as capital, debt, employee health, retirement, and benefits spending are typically excluded from publicly reported figures. Government school officials say those dollars shouldn’t “count.” Not so, says Schaeffer. “Parents and taxpayers have the right to know what public schools cost them,” he says. “All of these are K-12 education expenses paid with taxpayer dollars. There’s no good reason to exclude them.”

Schaeffer recommends that states should require each local education provider to create and maintain a detailed expenditure and revenue database that presents information in an easily accessible, searchable, and downloadable format. That, he suggests, would help promote an honest education policy debate-a particularly pressing public concern since education typically represents the largest share of states’ general budgets.