It’s an article of faith in Indiana that school districts serving large populations of poor students spend more money than affluent districts. At one level, it’s true. When it comes to state funding, high-poverty districts get and spend a little more, per pupil, than low-poverty districts.
But when you consider total spending – including funds from state, federal and local sources – a different picture emerges, according to the Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of School System Finances.
Looking at the districts that are highest and lowest in per-pupil spending, there’s no clear pattern.
Per-pupil total spending varies all the way from $15,209 to $8,149, according to the census data. At the top is Daleville Community Schools, a small district near Muncie. Maybe it helped that it generated millions of dollars as the authorizer of two controversial virtual charter schools.
At the bottom is Clinton Prairie School Corp., a small, rural district near Lafayette where 42% of students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, near the state average.
The highest spenders include large and urban districts like Indianapolis Public Schools, MSD of Wayne Township (Indianapolis) and Muncie Community Schools. They also include tiny districts like Hamilton and Medora Community Schools. Some are high-poverty districts, but quite a few in the top 20 are near the state average for the percentage of students who qualify for federal meal subsidies.
The lowest spenders don’t look that different. Some are large (Tippecanoe School Corp.). Some are small (Cannelton City Schools). Only one is what you’d call low-poverty (Northwest Allen). Several are high-poverty (Marion, Cannelton). Most look to be about average, both in size and poverty.
One thing the lowest-spending districts have in common is that almost none of them have ever successfully conducted a referendum to get more money via local property taxes. A few have tried and been turned down by the voters. Most haven’t tried.
It’s noteworthy that the lowest-poverty school districts – many of which are in suburbs north and west of Indianapolis – are not among the lowest-spending districts. They get less money from the state but make up for it with local property taxes. Overall, they tend to be near the middle in per-pupil spending.
A list of school districts ranked by local property tax revenue only shows some of the state’s lowest-poverty districts near the top, including Zionsville, West Lafayette, North West Hendricks and West Lafayette.
All these data, from the Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of School Finances, are from 2017, the most recent year available. They are what EdBuild used for a report on the nation’s most segregated school district borders. Like EdBuild, I excluded spending for capital outlays, which can fluctuate from year to year.
One caveat is that school districts report these data to the Census Bureau, so there’s no guarantee that they’re all doing it the same way. Another is that schools may be organized in ways that result in misleading results. For example, I excluded from the results DeKalb County Eastern schools, which appear from the reported data to spend a lot more per student than any other district. But that’s only because DeKalb Eastern acts as a financial agent for 13 school districts that are part of a special education co-op, which inflates its spending dramatically.
With those caveats in mind, here’s a spreadsheet with Indiana school districts ranked by spending per pupil. You can look up your local district and see how it compares.