WASHINGTON – The Census Bureau said per-pupil spending increased in every county in the state in 2003 and the state as a whole spent about $8,921 per student, the 13th-highest amount in the country.
School officials and government watchdogs split on whether spending guarantees a better education — or even if the Census numbers measure the full amount that schools shell out per student.
But Pat Foerster, the president of the Maryland State Teacher’s Association, said that while low per-pupil spending is not the kiss of death for a school system, “Money does matter — particularly to those who don’t have it.”
The Census said per-pupil spending in the state rose about 4.9 percent, from $8,507 in the 2001-2002 school year to $8,921 in the 2002-2003 school year. But that only measures salaries and benefits for teachers and staff, supplies, administration, operations and maintenance costs — it does not include one-time capital expenses like construction, for example.
Foerster said that spending more does not always mean students are getting more money directly: Funds may go to central office administrators, for example. But she said that counties that spend more per pupil are generally more likely have up-to-date technology, larger teacher salaries and better special education services, among other advantages.
Officials in Montgomery County schools — which spent $10,580 per pupil in 2003, the highest amount in the state — say their spending has paid off. Marshall Spatz, director of management, budget and planning for Montgomery County Public Schools, said that the county has the highest SAT scores in the state.
“We are very proud of our results for student achievement,” Spatz said.
Spatz insisted “the extra dollars are going to instruction,” not overhead, in his county.
“We spend a greater proportion on the classroom,” he said.
But Harford County, which spent a state-low of $7,641 per pupil in 2003, also boasts relatively high test scores.
Foerster said Harford is one of the best school systems in the state. And county schools spokesman Don Morrison said Harford students have consistently outperformed students in school systems that spend more.
Part of the reason for that is the people in the county, he said.
“We have a wonderful families and a great atmosphere,” Morrison said.
But he concedes that even a great community cannot make up for fund shortages. Like all schools, Harford has a list of things it would like to improve, he said, such as alternative education for gifted talented students and higher teacher salaries.
But others said more money is no assurance of better student performance. Richard Falknor, executive vice president of the Maryland Taxpayer’s Association, noted that Baltimore City has consistently high per-pupil spending and consistently low performance.
Falknor said the state’s schools need massive reform to ensure the money invested in them is spent wisely. One way to ensure that is through the use of school vouchers and public charter schools, he said.
“From our perspective, the situation in Maryland is difficult, and putting more money into the system before you restructure it is just like flooding an engine that won’t start,” he said.
Falknor and school officials agreed on at least one point: The Census numbers do not show the true cost of student spending in Maryland because they do not include capital costs, adult education, community services, contingency funding and other expenses.
“A reasonable estimate is that widely reported per-pupil spending figures represent only 70 to 80 percent of what the United States spends on education,” Falknor said in an e-mail message.
-30- CNS 03-25-05