In a Jan. 19 press release objecting to possible state budget cuts, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, said "education funding should be our highest priority."
"Under current funding levels, Texas is already near the bottom in education funding per pupil (Texas ranks 44th nationally), " she said.
Responding to our request for backup, Davis spokesman Anthony Spangler pointed us to "Texas on the Brink," a 2009 compilation of Texas statistics prepared by then-state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso. One entry, citing the National Education Association, ranked Texas 44th in per-student education expenditures. The Legislative Budget Board’s 2010 "Texas Fact Book" similarly quotes the analysis placing Texas 44th.
According to a December report from the association, which describes itself as the nation’s largest teachers union, in 2009-10 Texas ranked 37th among the states and the District of Columbia in state and local funds spent per student in public school, averaging $9,227.
But the state ranked 44th in 2008-09, according to the report, averaging $8,610. That year, the top-spending state, New Jersey, averaged $16,253, and the lowest-spending state, Arizona, averaged $5,932. The national average: $10,313.
Spangler told us Davis wasn’t aware of the 2009-10 ranking when she made her statement.
According to NEA’s report, it bases its rankings on analyzing expenditure and fall enrollment data gathered from each state’s education department. The report, "Rankings & Estimates," has this caveat: "Each state’s department of education has its own system of accounting and reporting. ... As a result, it is not always possible to obtain completely comparable data for every state."
To adjust for such differences, the report says, NEA solicits clarifications from the departments. Texas’ clarification: The number of elementary students includes sixth-graders, while secondary school covers upper grades.
Next, we looked for other estimates of per-pupil spending. The Federal Education Budget Project, part of the Washington-based New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute, ranked Texas 43rd in public education spending per student for the 2007-08 school year, averaging $8,350.
Jennifer Cohen, an education analyst for the foundation, told us the project tapped data from the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education, to build its rankings.
Among the states, according to the foundation, Utah spent the least per pupil in 2007-08 — $5,978 — while New Jersey spent the most, $17,620, New York was second, followed by Alaska and Connecticut.
Such rankings fail to reflect all school spending, according to David Guenthner, a spokesman at the conservative Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation. He told us the rankings typically exclude school expenses such as debt service and capital costs, such asconstruction projects, which would drive up per-student expenditures.
Guenthner pointed us to a March 2010 report by the Washington-based Cato Institute, a Libertarian research foundation. The report reviewed 2008-09 budgets for districts in the nation’s five largest cities, including Houston, concluding that average per-pupil spending was 44 percent higher than is otherwise reported by public schools.
Separately, Frank Johnson, an NCES statistician, told us the center doesn’t take into account capital outlays in estimating per-pupil spending because such costs can create false assumptions about what’s spent on instructional programs, school supplies and teachers.
At our request, though, Cohen created a table ranking states by their spending both on school operations and capital costs. In 2007-08, her table shows, Texas spent an average of $10,662 per pupil, ranking 36th nationally. In 2006-07, Texas ranked 39th, spending an average of $9,825.
All told, it’s clear that rankings vary by year and methodology. Yet Texas has consistently trailed most states in per-pupil education spending. According to the approach cited by the senator, Texas ranked 37th in 2009-10, improving from 44th place the year before. By other measures for recent years, Texas has placed as low as 43rd and, rolling in capital costs, as high as 36th. We rate the senator’s statement Mostly True.