When the discussion of money and US education comes up, we'll inevitably see cost-per-student tossed around. This is a not-useless way to make district-to-district comparisons, but the statistic has some fairly hefty limitations, and we need to be careful in any discussion that uses the data.
All Dollars Are Not Created Equal
The lion's share of a school district's outlay is going to be personnel costs, and since those are often a negotiated item, they will be driven by the level of the local economy.
I teach in a small town/rural district, and my pay after thirty-some years is unimpressive compared to the ritzy districts in Metro Pittsburgh, which is only 90 minutes away. I get peanuts compared to some of those teachers, but I live in a nice-sized home located on a nice riverfront lot right in town, and that home cost me a tenth of the price for a similarly-sized home on a lesser lot in the Burgh. By state or national measures, I am not a particularly well-paid teacher. By local standards, I'm a well-paid professional in my community. Comparing our local cost-per-student to the cost-per-student in larger districts doesn't really mean anything.
That's nobody's fault. If I taught in a larger urban area, I'd need enough money to buy a decent home in a livable neighborhood as well as covering the costs of commuting (my commute here to school is roughly four minutes). My urban counterparts aren't greedier than I am; they live in more expensive places. And rich districts further skew the numbers because they know an economic truth that somehow never makes it into these discussions-- if you want your pick of the best people, you need to outbid the other potential employers out there, and that means more money on the table.
If we want to make these kinds of costs across international boundaries, it gets even harder to compare true cost of living.
Bureaucracy Costs Money
Conservatives cite these numbers as proof that we shouldn't "throw more money at schools" and then call for more accountability. This is an argument that punches itself in the face, because accountability = more bureaucracy and more bureaucracy = increased spending that doesn't actually reach a classroom.
Giant urban districts seem to have some of the worst cost-per-student bang-per-buck numbers, but giant urban districts have giant layers of bureaucracy, much of it in place simply to manage the largeness of it all. It's a giant bureaucratic accountability machine, and it costs big bucks that don't necessarily land near any students.
Every added layer of accountability costs money and, if you're very unlucky and/or bad at this game, time that could be spent teaching. Accountability too often takes us to the Dilbertesque land where workers can't get work done because they're spending time in meetings about how they can't get work done.
Not All Students Are Equally Costly
The discussion of cost-per-pupil obscures a simple fact-- some students are wildly more expensive to school than others.
Charter operators understand this quite well (just as they understand that personnel costs are their biggest expense), and so charters often specialize in finding and keeping the students who are the least expensive to educate. Those students are the cash cows of the education biz, because every dollar the charter doesn't have to spend on educating a student is a dollar the charter gets to pocket.
Government has complicated the matter by mandating the extra costs. If you have special needs students, you have a list of services that you must provide as determined by statute (and by lawsuit precedents established by lucrative student advocate legal practitioners). Every special thing you have to do for a student is additional cost.
If I were a cynical person, I would guess that this is precisely why Arne Duncan seems bound and determined to switch special ed from a series of mandated program inputs and turn it instead into a system that gives students with special needs nothing but high expectations and the privilege of doing exactly what the other students do (which coincidentally makes special ed stop draining extra funds).
My cynicism might also lead me to think that the reformster reliance on grit and Great Teachers is simply meant to sell the idea that it should cost no more to educate poor urban kids than it costs to educate comfy rich kids in the burbs. Instead, they get those sporadic equity lawsuits that force states to spend more in poor districts, which gets us frustration all around because too few people in the right offices want to have a real conversation about what it would really take to raise up our most disadvantaged students (spoiler alert: not more tests nor insistence that they all just grow some grit nor an influx of magical teachers who will work miracles but cost less money).
Not All Goals Are Equally Costly
Man, I guess I am going on a cynicism wallow today. Because it occurs to me that while educating students to become fully rounded, functional citizens who are prepared to pursue a wide and diverse assortment of goals while acquiring background and experience in a full range of fields so that they can experience the full, rich awesomeness of being human-- well, that shit is going to cost you some money. The cost of coming up with a decent way to assess it alone would hoover up a hunk of hard cash.
On the other hand, training students to pass a standardized English and math test would be cheap. That-- that we can do for peanuts.
It's a tricky balance. Cynicism-soaked me realizes that we don't really want to save the taxpayers money-- that revenue stream has to keep flowing. But once the revenue arrives in the hands of school operators, we don't want them to have to turn around and give it all away. Ed reform continues to be a bi-partisan shuffle. For conservatives, we focus on cutting costs and free-market solutions; for liberals, we focus on how the government is mandating wise and uplifting solutions.
As I said, the cost-per-pupil figures can be useful, but to have a really useful discussion of those dollars, we have to talk about where we're spending them, on whom we're spending them, what sort of bang we're trying to get for our buck, and how we're checking to see if we got what we thought we were paying for. Right now a cynic would suggest that it's in the interests of some reformsters to deliberately avoid having some of those conversation, but without them, talking about cost-per-pupil is a waste of time.