Guess how much we invest in our students

Jeff Camp

Jeff Camp

In the course of a public K-12 education, how much money will be invested in the average California student? How much does a basic, public K-12 education actually cost?

Do you know? Can you guess?

I will answer the question in a moment. But first, I want to help you feel as uncomfortable as possible about the fact that you don’t know. Because I bet you don’t, and I think you should. After all, you are a voter and a taxpayer, and also the kind of person who cares about education, right? You may even think (as I do) that we should be willing to spend more, particularly in California.

Average Alex.  Let’s imagine a fictitious, average California public student. (Let’s call this student Alex, a name that is almost perfectly androgynous according to the Social Security Administration.) To remind ourselves that averages lie, let’s remember that Average Alex is about half Latino, 50% poor, and of course about half male. Alex is also obese, but only on Tuesdays. Again: averages lie.

So how should we quantify the total investment in the education of Average Alex?

It’s a trickier question than it might seem. Money for education comes from local, county, state and federal sources. The accounting to combine them is neither straightforward nor, apparently, the priority of anyone with a sense of urgency. The U.S. Department of Education collects and publishes the data at the state level through the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), but at a delay of about three years.

Based on the NCES figures, the total 13-year public investment in the education of California’s Average Alex, adjusted for inflation, comes to about $122,000.

$122,000.  Most people raise their eyebrows at this number. It’s enough to buy a small foreclosed-on house in Sacramento. It’s more than double the annual income of the median household in America, which is about $50,000 per year. (My kids remember this chestnut as “50/50 over 50.”) It’s less than two years of salary for an average California teacher.

How should we think about this number, now that we have it? Is it consistent with other states? Louisiana and Georgia spend about the same per student as California does. New York spends much more (over $210,000), but Mississippi spends less ($100,000). Of course, these are very different places. Money is only valuable for what it can buy, right? Does the educational power of a dollar go farther in some states than others?

Of course it does. In fact, NCES publishes a data series that tries to provide a basis for evaluating the purchasing power of education budgets in different states. The Annie E. Casey Foundation favors restating education expenditures to adjust for differences in local purchasing power. For example, California is an expensive place to hire college graduates – such as, well, teachers. Restating the figures makes it easier to rank state education expenditures meaningfully, and helps explain why California so consistently ranks toward the bottom. California is an expensive labor market, but it funds education as if it were an average labor market. That’s why in the annual EdWeek ranking of state spending on education California shows up near the bottom of the list.

The sheer size of these numbers makes them hard to use. What does it mean to invest an average of $122,000 per student in K-12 education? How much is it, really? Compared to the lifetime economic contribution of a participating, tax-paying adult (about $4 million) it is a small figure. How can this knowledge help us think differently?

The cost of a student’s time.  To think about the value of $122,000 over 13 years, it is useful to break the number up. Average Alex spends close to six hours a day in class for up to 180 days per year – a total of slightly over 1,000 hours of class time. What is the investment per student per instructional hour?

It turns out that the average expenditure per student hour in California is just a bit over the minimum wage: about $8/hour. This way of thinking about our investment in education is provocative, and has some advantages. Time in school is a precious commodity, but we rarely put a value on it. Having a dollars-per-hour approximation of the cost of kids’ time allows us to reimagine students as workers, and teachers as managers.

Imagining a par value for students’ educational time can help put a price tag on activities that aren’t usually thought about in terms of dollars. What is the cost of a school assembly? What is the cost of administering a lengthy test? What is the value of streamlining the transitions between activities? What is the cost of absence, or detention, or simply being off-task in class? This approach can be used to assign value to activity beyond classroom time, as well. What is the par value of time spent on homework, or in an after-school activity, or mastering a jump shot, or watching YouTube? At some level this is all just playing tricks with numbers, but it’s provocative.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s workers, innovators, parents, teachers… and taxpayers. However you calculate it, the return on investment for universal public education remains very high. Over the long haul society’s investment in the education of Average Alex pays for itself and more.


Jeff Camp is the primary author of, a primer on education reform options in California. He co-chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an organization that coordinates small teams of volunteers working in support of great nonprofit organizations that need a little help to get to the next level, whatever that may be. 

Filed under: Commentary, School Finance


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6 Responses to “Guess how much we invest in our students”

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  1. brian on Jul 2, 2013 at 1:55 pm07/2/2013 1:55 pm

    • 000

    Your concept is interesting. I wonder if you’ve ever considered the fact that the numbers you are using come from what the Feds, State, and local municipalities say they “spend” on education. The problem is, that number does not tell you what it “cost” to educate each child. In fact, I wonder if you’ve ever tried to ask the CFO of a school district to offer an answer as to “per student cost” of education. I put this question to the Jeffco County CFO and she would not give me answer. Apparently, knowing that number is too complicated to determine.

    I’m not so sure she was being honest with me. The truth is, public education is costing you and I much more than we know. Both of us would agree that something different needs to happen. One economic expert said we can grade the outcome of public education by the high unemployment rate. The fact that nearly half the country is on some sort of government assistance is another horrifying grade. Funding the same system with more money is the definition of…you fill in the blank

    Consider this. My son attends a private school. It ranks in the top 10 in Colorado to comparable schools. The annual tuition is $7,500. If you take real numbers from the Jeffco District budget, which is public, you’ll discover that the cost per student is $11,400. Attending a private school affords my son a solid education, and a value system that matches my worldview, and it cost $3,900 less.

    So, is the problem a lack of funds? Or, is there something much more “complicated” that needs to be laid bare. Could it be that the system is so massive and convoluted that it cannot be managed? Has Public Education passed the tipping point where rather than being concerned with educating our children, it is worried about it’s own survival? Maybe it’s time to consider a new way of funding public education that truly offers equality and fairness for everyone, even for average Alex?

    I would suggest the solution, but some are so entrenched and intolerant that just mentioning the word would cause them to miss out on reality.

    All the best.


    • el on Jul 2, 2013 at 5:48 pm07/2/2013 5:48 pm

      • 000

      Without knowing the details, private school tuition is not generally comparable across the board to the public school cost to educate a student, for very real reasons.

      1. Private schools often have endowments or other sources of income in addition to tuition.
      2. Private schools often require volunteer hours from parents.
      3. Private schools have the option to turn away any student who is expensive or inconvenient to educate… the 21st kid who wants to enroll, kids who need a dedicated aide, the child who disrupts learning for others.
      4. Private schools, by nature of their voluntary situation, have fewer regulations to work with, which is fine when they are chosen but not so fine if that school and a school like it were your *only* choices.
      5. Private schools don’t have to provide meal service, transportation, and many other services that we now require from public schools.
      6. Private schools by their nature come with parents that are especially motivated and able to assist with their child’s education.

      I am glad the school you chose works for you! However, if it had the responsibility of educating every child in Colorado, I think you would find it less successful and appealing at that price point.

      I’ve had no trouble in California getting a per student expenditure at the district level, if by that you mean the expenditures divided by the student count. The marginal cost to educate the next student, however, depends very much on the next student.

  2. Jeff Camp on Jun 20, 2013 at 2:46 pm06/20/2013 2:46 pm

    • 000

    In reply to Manuel: The $122k figure is the CPI inflation-adjusted sum of the statewide “current expense of education” per student over a 13 year period (K-12), expressed in 2012 dollars. It omits capital expenses, but includes the cost of salaries, benefits, operational costs and the like. Dollars from all sources are included. You can get at this on a district level through the Ed-Data partnership. Be sure to look at expenditures rather than revenues, which may show you incomplete data rather than including all sources.

    I’m not sure where EdVoice sourced the data for the chart you ask about, but the variability of outcomes in schools with similar students was a subject of detailed study in an EdSource report a few years ago. If you have the stomach for it, the source data for the EdVoice chart is probably available through I can’t help you on the LAUSD question.

    In reply to Navigio: Of course I agree with your main point. Averages lie. (After all, Average Alex is only obese on Tuesdays.) By using this intentionally absurd device I hoped to poke fun at the tendency to seek absolute truths in averages. The experience of education is ultimately individual. My favorite way of expressing this is “batch” versus “each.” Our system is too big, complex, and (let’s say it nicely) lean to consistently approach the work of learning individually. We educate by the batch, but learn at the level of “each.” Your point about efficiency is an important one; not everything of value is denominated in dollars. As a leader of an organization that is substantially volunteer-powered, I struggle with this often. (I wrote about it in honor of mothers: )

    The point about dollars as reported on the SARC (School Accountability Report Card) is a standing challenge. There are nearly unlimited ways to look at school accounting. On top of that, SARC data is not systematically collected and reconciled, so it is always suspect. (…which you probably know already…)

    In reply to Richard: For more about California’s low funding for education, check here: The shift to local control over the use of dollars will doubtless have both intended and unintended consequences. My crystal ball says that over time control from nearer is better than control from farther, but we will need to really focus on cultivating better-informed local leadership, including parents, teachers, and community members. This is a major mission for In my most positive-minded moments, I hope that the shift to local control over the use of education funds will spark conversation about equitable models for community participation in school funding, such as the tandem-bike model:

  3. Manuel on Jun 20, 2013 at 1:07 pm06/20/2013 1:07 pm

    • 000

    What I really would like to know is where did this amount come from (i.e., the $122,000). Can it be calculated by district? What should be put into the count? Is this the state or the local share? Etc.

    While I have your attention, can anyone tell me where EdVoice obtained the data in the graph included in this web page? They claim they got it from the California Department of Finance but I can’t find it there (maybe I’m not as good as I thought or it is placed under some obscure link).

    Oh, another thing: the state calculates a “county percentage” that, presumably, is related to how much the local property taxes contribute to the K-12 Revenue Limit. But I can’t get it to match LAUSD’s from their published amounts. Does anybody know why this is so? Thanks in advance!

  4. Richard Moore (@infosherpa) on Jun 20, 2013 at 12:22 pm06/20/2013 12:22 pm

    • 000

    Gosh. I was right. $10,000 a year. A fraction of what more successful states spend. Which buys us overstuffed classrooms, schools without nurses, counselors or librarians. In fact, schools without standards. Other states have state and accreditation standards that mandate staffing. We believe in “local control.” We also believe we are just fine with the lowest reading scores in the nation and the same number of school librarians as Connecticut. We have secretaries doling out medicine and college advisors who have never been to college. And we are going to improve our schools by testing our students non-stop, tying those test results to teacher evaluations, and begging the feds for pennies with promises that we will kowtow to their every desire.

  5. navigio on Jun 20, 2013 at 9:00 am06/20/2013 9:00 am

    • 000

    Hi Jeff. I know you are trying to get people to think, but I might add that its a bummer that we have to resort to making economic efficiency arguments to justify the value of education. As someone (probably an academic) once said, ‘education isn’t preparation for life, it is life.’

    Regardless, as you point out, averages obscure. Remember that what is spent on ‘education’ does not necessarily end up at schools. Especially when looked at independently. A couple years ago, the SARC reported expenditure at our elementary was under $4k/student (our poverty rate is well over 50%). That makes the in-school cost for the first half of a child’s education in our school right around $25,000. Even though secondary is a bit more expensive, it still wouldn’t add up to anywhere near the remaining $95k or so. (in theory, this could cut your per-hour cost in about half, if you really want to look at it from an in-school perspective–something I like btw).

    The lesson is not, however, that all that missing money is ending up in district coffers, rather it is that there can be extreme deviation from that ‘average’ when schools or students are looked at independently. We have entire schools where per-pupil spending equals that elementary total, but per year. We even have a few students who cost more than double your lifetime average, but again, per year.

    There is a real problem with using averages and that is that people tend to believe it applies to everyone (what is it with Americans and statistics anyway? now there should be a blog post about that topic!). When someone sees a student walking down the street, one might be inclined to look at them and think, ‘we are spending $122k on that child’s k-12 education’. Odds are that is nowhere close to being the truth.

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