Project Nickel is a tool designed to help families, taxpayers, and policymakers understand how much is spent per student at schools across the country and compare schools on the factors that matter to parents. The data provided by Project Nickel can help parents make informed decisions about their child’s education by bundling together statistics of interest. This post is an updated version of a blog post that was published in 2021.
After the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed in 2015, states are required to report each school’s per-student expenditures — not just per-student expenditures at the district level. The per-student spending data reported by Project Nickel, however, may not encompass schools’ full spending because it excludes debt and construction, which can vary substantially from year to year.
Project Nickel’s search feature shows that in 2020, Bowman Elementary in the Anchorage school district spent $19,570 per student while Bayshore Elementary spent only $12,944 per student — below the 2020 national average of $13,494. Despite similar demographics and student/teacher ratios, Bowman Elementary spends $6,626 more per student than Bayshore Elementary.
Bowman Elementary serves a larger student body of almost 500 students, while Bayshore serves about 350, but some evidence suggests larger schools should enjoy lower per-student costs as they reach economies of scale. Only about 44% of Bowman Elementary’s students were proficient in reading and math on the 2022 AK STAR assessment, while about 55% of Bayshore’s students were.
The costs in Alaska’s rural school districts are typically much higher than in urban districts due to several factors, including increased costs of hiring and retaining teachers and staff, increased materials and transportation costs, and differing student needs. Small enrollments drive up per-student costs. But even among rural schools, there are substantial differences in per-student spending.
The Adak School, within the Aleutian Region school district, spent $86,941 for each of its 15 students in 2020. Two schools within the Northwest Arctic Borough school district, Ambler School and Deering School, serve similar student bodies in terms of demographics. Yet the Deering School spends $58,533 for each of its 53 students while the Ambler School spends $45,596 for each of its 71 students. In each school, more than 90% of students were not proficient in either reading or mathematics on the 2022 AK STAR exam.
Contrast the spending in Alaska’s traditional public schools, both rural and urban, with the spending in Alaska’s correspondence schools, which are public charter schools. The largest, Interior Distance Education of Alaska (IDEA), spends $4,948 per student. The correspondence school allotment program allows IDEA to educate an enrollment of more than 9,000 students while maintaining a relatively small staff of teachers to supervise each student’s individualized learning plan. The correspondence school allotment program allows parents to be reimbursed for books, educational materials, and classes that are part of their child’s individual learning plan.
One of Project Nickel’s contributions is that it can enhance education transparency in Alaska. The database allows anyone to view the spending of individual schools in the state and nationwide. This provides greater accountability, as parents and community members see how funding is distributed among schools and can determine whether their tax dollars are being spent wisely.