When Tennessee’s department of education rolled out a sleek new “report card” last month to help parents compare school districts, it did not include how much money its own Achievement School District (ASD) spends on each child. It did include that information for every other district in the state.

The ASD is tasked with turning around the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. If and how it will turn around those schools has been a subject of debate and is being closely watched by educators and politicians around the country. Knowing the districts’ per-pupil expenditures helps observers understand the resources going into that turnaround.

Tennessee’s urban superintendents have long complained that legislators dole out money to districts in such a convoluted way that the state’s neediest children are stuck in schoolhouses that can’t afford quality teachers, textbooks and basic facility upkeep. Tennessee was recently ranked 49th in the country in per-pupil spending.

Per-pupil funds are made up of local, state, and federal tax dollars and are distributed based on a formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP. Districts may use that money to pay for salary and curriculum, central office expenses, debt payments, capital improvements, and more.

Based on that formula, the ASD’s spokesman Elliot Smalley said the district’s per-pupil expenditure is $10,179. That’s slightly more than the state’s average of $9,293 on the 2012-13 report card, but less than the two districts from which the ASD absorbed its current schools. According to that report, Metro Nashville Public Schools spent $11,421.35 per student and Legacy Memphis City Schools spent $11,570 per student. Legacy Shelby County spent $9,123 on each child.

The ASD was created by the state’s First to the Top law in 2010 and got start-up money from a federal Race to the Top Grant, said Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the state’s department of education.

The ASD’s boundaries are not dictated by geography (15 of its schools are spread throughout Memphis and one is in Nashville). It could eventually run more than 50 schools across the state. Its schools, most of which are run by charter operators, have autonomy over their budgets, hiring practices, curricula and other policies that are usually determined by regular districts’ central offices. 

According to Gauthier, the state didn’t report the ASD’s per-pupil spending on the report card released last month because there’s not an “apples-to-apples” comparison between the ASD and regular districts: The ASD is planning to expand quickly and is building infrastructure and capacity as it goes, she said, though it intends to maintain a small central office.

“The ASD is a district that’s set to grow,” she said. “There’s no apples-to-apples metric…If you are starting out and you have six schools, but you know next year you have 23, you don’t start on August 1 with brand new teachers and buildings. You’ll always have more [funds] than the number of students who are currently enrolled” [because you’re planning for next year’s growth].

A portion of the ASD’s per-pupil funds are taken from the districts the students come from, Gauthier said.

Just how much districts should spend on students’ learning is a topic of debate. For instance, Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers University, says the numbers indicate that many times, charter schools that perform better academically often outspend other public schools. Other organizations, including free-market proponents at the Beacon Center in Tennessee, say that how much a district spends matters less than how those funds are allocated.

Here’s the ASD’s report card, with the spot where per-pupil expenditure would usually be listed highlighted (click to enlarge; the relevant information is in the bottom left-hand corner):

ASD screen shot annotated
Achievement School District’s report card for 2013

For comparison, here’s legacy Memphis City Schools’ report card:

Memphis City's report card
Memphis City district’s report card from 2012-13, with per-pupil spending highlighted.

 

As of Friday, the state had not updated the ASD’s report card page with the per-pupil expenditure reported by Smalley.