ESSA requires states and districts to publicly report school-by-school per-pupil expenditures. Access to spending figures at every school in every community means a treasure trove of data. It will now be much easier to investigate (and understand) the relationship between school outcomes and school spending; examine spending equity among schools in a district and among districts in a state; and compare spending across states.

The data may raise thorny questions as parents, school boards, advocates, principals—and media—try to understand which schools get what, why, and what outcomes they’re getting with the dollars.

Below are resources for journalists to consider how to use this new school-level spending data to inform your reporting and start important conversations in your community.

     Key Reminders

  • States allocate money to districts. Districts decide how to divvy up that money among schools. Local school boards are responsible for signing off on the district budget.
  • Salaries and benefits make up the biggest chunk of district spending. How much the district spends on a school depends on the actual mix of teachers (and their salaries) in the building.
  • Understanding how to navigate your state’s online reporting system now could pay dividends when you’re scrambling to meet deadline.

Story Ideas: Questions for Journalists to Explore

Array schools from lowest to highest state/local per-pupil spending. On which school does the district spend the most per pupil (in state/local funds)?  Least per pupil?  Why? (E.g., what is driving the difference?)  Does per-student spending at any school stand out as unexpected? Do higher-needs schools get appropriately higher levels of resources?

Group schools by percent poverty and/or percent minority. Among elementary schools, does the district allocate less/same/or more of its state/local dollars to its schools with more students in poverty? How about for schools with more students of color? Why? How about across middle and high schools? Note that federal funds are intended to be layered on top of an equitable allocation of state/local funds.

Group schools by level. Does the district spend more on elementary, middle, or high schools?  Why?

If the district has any obvious regions or school types, is spending fair across regions?

We do not have an example analysis yet!  Send us yours edunomics@georgetown.edu.

Do teacher salary differences drive any of the patterns identified in spending per student by student type, school type/size, or school location?

 What percentage of an average school’s resources is attributed to the school site’s share of central?  Does that seem high?


Does the district spend more or less on smaller schools?  Why?


Compare spending and outcomes data across schools with similar demographics.


Explore spending and outcomes data to uncover innovative or effective spending practices. Compare total expenditures for each school, some expenditure detail by major function or object and/or by major program (Special Education, English Learner programs, etc.), student demographics, and student performance by school and student type.

We do not have any example analyses yet. Send us yours edunomics@georgetown.edu.

Tips When Writing About Education Finance

  • Quantify dollars in per student terms

  • Reference big spending figures with percentages

  • Acknowledge proportion of investment and relative significance (federal investment ~10%)

  • Recognize that districts & school boards have fiduciary responsibility
  • Connect spending and outcomes
  • Acknowledge tradeoffs and value of each

Additional Tips and Tools

School Spending: What Stories Can You tell?
Dollars and Sense: How to Cover School Finance
Reporter’s Guide To Understanding K-12 Funding
Breaking Down School Budgets

Have questions? Edunomics Lab can provide national context and local examples, and help interpret data. We can also point you to other experts and resources. Contact Deb Britt at Edunomics@georgetown.edu for more information.

Get smarter on how to use financial data with Georgetown University’s Certificate in Education Finance.

Certificate in Education Finance