Susan Pendergrass

For me, Christmas came early this year. On December 12, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released, for the first time, detailed data about spending at the school level for all Missouri schools. Before this, spending data were only released for districts as whole. Now we can finally see how districts distribute funds to their schools and how much they keep for the central office. Equally interesting, we can compare spending among schools in the same district with their student demographics and their performance. I know not everyone will be as geeked out by this as I am, but I’ve been anxiously awaiting these numbers and the conversations that I hope they spur.

DESE released tables for each district that show, on the left side, the spending per student in each school building and, on the right side, the district-wide spending per student on the district’s central office. Both sides should raise a number of questions.

For an example on the left (school-building) side, consider Columbia. Two schools—Midway Heights Elementary and John Ridgeway Elementary—look very similar:

  • Midway Heights has 212 students (84 percent White, 24 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch) and John Ridgeway has 234 students (74 percent White, 13 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch).
  •  Each spent about $2 million in 2018–19 at the building level (before central office costs)
  • But at Midway Heights, 72 percent of the students scored at grade level in English/Language Arts (ELA) in 2018-19, compared to 57 percent at John Ridgeway. In math, the numbers were 82 percent for Midway Heights and 59 percent at John Ridgeway.

So what’s going on? I don’t know, but we now have the data to ask the question. One school seems to be getting a higher return on investment, and it’s worthwhile to figure out why.

Now let’s look at the right (district-office) side for two school districts of similar size—Brentwood (755 students) and Marionville R-IX (757 students).

  • Marionville has four schools and Brentwood has three.
  • Brentwood spends $5,100 per student—nearly 30 percent of their total expenditures—for their central office. Marionville, on the other hand, spent just $1,900 per student (about 20 percent of their total) on their central office. For the record, Marionville has more than twice the number of low-income students than Brentwood.
  • Yet, just like their size and unlike their spending, their test results are fairly similar. At both middle schools, 58 percent of students scored on grade level in ELA in 2018-19. Brentwood High School did better than Marionville’s, but Marionville still scored well above the state average.

Why do some schools have much higher test scores for the same investment and similar students? Why do some districts have nearly triple the central office costs of others of similar size? There are so many questions raised by these data. I look forward to digging in more, and I hope that local stakeholders across the state will do so as well.

About the Author

Susan Pendergrass
Director of Research and Education Policy

Susan Pendergrass was Vice President of Research and Evaluation for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools before joining the Show-Me Institute. Prior to coming to the National Alliance, Susan was a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush administration and a senior research scientist at the National Center for Education Statistics during the Obama administration. She earned a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Mason University.