How Do We Calculate Per Pupil Expenditures? A Call for GAAP in Education

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Determining per pupil expenditure relies on a series of decision rules that vary. Should states report current expenditure or total expenditure (which includes capital outlays and debt services)? Is expenditure the total revenue collected and disbursed to the public schools, or the amount that the district actually spent?

Perhaps most importantly, the method you use to calculate costs affects the final total. To highlight the discrepancies that can exist, I compiled three different calculations of per pupil expenditures from five large, well-known school districts (based off data from the Census Bureau Report). As you can see from the right-most column, the per-pupil expenditure varies widely depending on how cost is calculated.

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This is not acceptable. What if we discovered that a private company had changed the way it calculated costs to overstate its return on investment? Remember Enron, anyone?