We'll start with the easy part: The more public school dollars that are spent in the classroom, the better. Using taxpayer money to benefit students as directly as possible is the best way to improve education.As noted, that's the easy part. Any critic can suggest that schools and students can better carry out their educational mission by spending money on hiring and training top-flight teachers and providing them with the resources necessary to most effectively do their jobs.
Which is why a performance audit released last week by the state auditor's office might prove to be invaluable. The report examined public school districts throughout the state and calculated where the money goes. Statewide, Washington schools commit about 62 percent of the budget toward teaching expenses, with about 1 percent going to central administration and 4 percent to transportation.
Of course, not all districts are created equal. Rural district inherently have higher transportation costs than urban districts, and the percentage of special-education students can greatly impact how a district spends its money. There are additional factors that can alter spending, as well, and it is important to keep those in mind rather than jumping to conclusions about the information provided in the audit.
Locally, Vancouver Public Schools sends 59.9 percent of its budget to teachers, with 0.5 percent going to central administration and 3.3 percent to transportation. Each percentage is below the state average, and Vancouver's percentage spent on teaching was near the bottom among districts in its comparison group. On the other hand, VPS spends a higher-than-average percentage on instruction support and operations/maintenance.
For Evergreen Public Schools, the percentages are 63.7 percent for teaching, 0.4 percent for central administration, and 4 percent for transportation.
Information for additional Clark County school districts was published in Friday's edition of The Columbian.
While the percentages are important for providing comparisons throughout the state between districts of similar sizes, they probably are not as informative as the total amount spent per student. Statewide, the average is $9,815 per student; in Vancouver, it's $9,549, and in Evergreen it's $9,147. Those numbers are largely out of the hands of administrators; they can only spend what the taxpayers provide them with.
Overall, the audit suggested that Washington districts should do more to get dollars funneled toward classrooms, where those dollars can do the most good. Moving 1 percent of spending from administrative offices to the classroom, it noted, would be enough to pay for more than 1,000 teachers statewide.
The report also criticized school officials for including a second budget number called "teaching support" in calculating how much money is spent on classroom instruction. By the state's numbers, that approach implies that 70 percent of the budget is spent in the classroom.
As the legislature, along with school administrators and taxpayers, attempt to assess spending in an age of budget cuts, it is crucial that a clear picture of expenditures be available. It is crucial that districts work toward transparency and uniformity in compiling their numbers.
Directing more dollars toward classrooms will result in educational improvements that in the long run will benefit all citizens. Stating that, as we said, is the easy part. Now it's up to administrators to make the difficult decisions that bring it to reality.