For the First Time, Public School Spending Falls in the United States

American spending on public schools is down for the first time in the three decades since the Census Bureau has been tracking spending data, CNBC reports. Experts explain the drop as the belated fallout from the the ‘Great Recession,’ even though officially the economic downturn came to an end in June 2009.

The reason the pain is only being felt now is in part due to federal stimulus spending which was supposed to offset some of the revenue losses experienced by states as a result of the financial collapse. However, the stimulus wasn’t enough to cover falling budgets indefinitely, so states eventually had to cut education spending as a way to balance the books.

Although saving money is one of the most prominent planks of the education reform platform, education policy experts in both ideological camps agree that the spending crunch  as measured on a per-student basis has more to do with harsh economic, rather than political, realities.

The 50 states and Washington, D.C., spent $10,560 per student in 2011, according to the most recent Census data, a less than 1 percent drop from 2010. Though tiny, it marked the first drop in per-pupil spending since the Census Bureau began collecting annual data in 1977.

Overall, public elementary and secondary school systems spent $595.1 billion in 2011, down 1.1 percent from 2010. It was the second year in a row that total expenditures fell. The data are not adjusted for inflation.

Although current forecasts show that spending is likely to stabilize and even rebound in coming years, few expect it to return to prior levels quickly. This is especially true because many districts have taken steps such as cutting staff to make ends meet, and may be hesitant to take on additional employees while the future funding picture is uncertain.

School districts have dealt with recessions before, but in the past Griffith said wealthier areas were often able to offset tax revenue cuts by passing levies or coming up with other funding options for schools. That meant that across the nation, spending per student has historically continued to rise even if certain districts saw spending fall.

This time, he said so many districts were forced to make cuts that the national numbers finally reflected the hit. Nevertheless, some of the nation’s wealthiest areas were still likely able to maintain strong funding, potentially exacerbating the gap between rich and poor districts.

Although per pupil funding is down overall, the decline doesn’t reflect the vast differences in spending between states. For example, New York, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia spent more than $15,000 per-student per-year on average in 2011 while Mississippi and Oklahoma spent less than $8,000 per student over the same period.