Why Do We Spend So Much?

The School Committee is coming to the final step in the budget process: reviewing revisions to the Superintendent’s Proposed Budget and then the vote, which is scheduled for this Tuesday, April 5th.  The meeting will start at 6:00 p.m. with Public Comment, the Committee will then discuss the revised version and ask for some tweaks, and, if everything goes as planned, vote on the final version. The public still has the ability to weigh in via email (schoolcom@cpsd.us) or at Public Comment Tuesday night.

The Superintendent’s Proposed Budget is posted at: Budget on CPS Website.

In terms of staffing, the Proposed Budget is very similar to last year’s budget. The total, $172 million, will be about 30% of our municipal budget, which isn’t exorbitant in terms of our city’s resources. (We used to spend 33-34%.) Brookline also spends 30% of its budget on its schools, Boston spends 36%.  Dividing the $172 million by the number of schools we have (counting CRLS as five schools), we are spending roughly $8.2 million per school (school-level and district-level expenses), which is slightly higher than Brookline ($8.0 million per school).  Brookline’s eight K-8 schools, however, are much larger than our 16 elementary and upper schools (an average of 690 students per school vs. 300 in Cambridge), which is one reason their per pupil spending is much lower than ours ($17,200 in  vs. $26,200).*  Large schools are more cost efficient because they have fewer empty seats, fewer administrators and librarians per student, and less square footage per student to heat, clean, and maintain.   Our small school structure isn’t the only reason our per pupil spending is high, but it is one of the main reasons. Cambridge, at the K-8 level, has very small schools relative to most other districts. Research suggests that school size is not correlated with achievement, particularly at the elementary level, but there are undoubtedly other positive student outcomes of small schools that have not been measured. I.e. small schools may have positive effects, just not on test scores as measures of achievement.  Our small school structure, for example, may be one reason we have always had very high graduation rates for low-income students as compared with other districts.  Our preK-5 schools currently range from 258-363 students; our upper schools from 249-270; our high school, with 1,822 students, is divided, at least administratively, into four learning communities of 455 students each.

My main point is that Cambridge’s higher per pupil spending does not mean we are spending $9,000 more per pupil than Brookline on student learning, which happens primarily in classrooms with teachers. Most of the additional costs are for infrastructure.  In terms of spending on Classroom and Specialist Teachers (these categories and data are from the Mass. Dept. of Elementary and Secondary), Cambridge spends only 10% more per pupil than Brookline–$7,700 in Cambridge vs. $7,080 in Brookline. I.e. Cambridge spends only 26% of its budget on teachers while Brookline spends 40%. Cambridge does spend a lot more on “Other Teaching Services” (librarians, paraprofesionals, medical services)–$2,300 per pupil vs.  $1,500 in Brookline, but even for these additional services we spend less as a percentage of our budget–7% in Cambridge vs. 9% in Brookline.  Total these two categories and we spend 33% of our total per pupil cost on teachers and “other teaching” as compared with almost 50% in Brookline.  Limited by Prop 2 1/2, Brookline is very parsimonious.

We do spend more on instructional materials, professional development, and a few other categories (our Athletics budget is triple that of Brookline), but most of Cambridge’s higher per pupil costs are for infrastructure and benefits: Administration (payroll, HR), Instructional Leadership (principals, vice principals, coordinators), Operations (utilities and maintenance), Pupil Services (buses, dining services), and Benefits and Retirement costs.  For Administration and Instructional Leadership–$3,150 for Cambridge vs. $2,110 for Brookline. Operations and Pupil Services–$3,946 vs. $2,230.   If Cambridge spent the same as Brookline on these four categories–Administration, Leadership, Operations, and Pupil Services, our per pupil spending would be only $23,200 vs. $17,000 in Brookline.  But the real killer cost is what we pay in Benefits (health insurance) and Retirement: $6,315 per pupil in Cambridge vs. $2,930 in Brookline–a difference of $3,400.  I haven’t figured out yet if that is due to higher benefit costs per current staff, retired staff, or both, but I hope to find out.

The main location of student learning is the classroom, whether it is a general education classroom, a semi-separate classroom, a resource room, or an art, music, or physical education classroom.  Classrooms are where students spend most of their time, and they spend most of their time with teachers.  Curricula, learning materials, those are important, but  the most important determinant of how much students progress every year is determined by the expertise of their teachers and the amount of quality attention they can receive from those teachers–quality and quantity.  Attention means anything from how much a teacher interacts directly with a student individually or in small groups (this interaction is so important for academic language and vocabulary development), but also how much time a teacher can spend individualizing instruction, observing a student, reviewing each student’s work, meeting with each student’s parents, and discussing the individual student with other teachers.  Teacher time and teacher attention are limited and can be stretched too thin. All else being equal, a teacher with a class of 24-25 students will have less time for each individual student as compared with having 18-20 students. In a classroom of 23-24 students, two co-teachers will, between them, be able to provide each student with more high-quality attention than only one teacher can, assuming they work well together.

Cambridge invests more than other districts in teacher hiring, induction, professional development, and coaching, which should result in having “better” teachers–teachers with higher levels of expertise. (We also receive hundreds, if not thousands of teacher applications every year, meaning we have the pick of the strongest new teachers entering the field or wanting to change districts.)  Those investments in teacher supports, however, are relatively inexpensive compared with hiring and supporting more teachers in order to give students more high quality attention every day in their classrooms.  The combination of a strong teacher support system and lower student-teacher ratios, however, should be the most powerful combination–lots of high quality attention for every student. Right now, our district-wide student:teacher ratio (not the same as average class size) is 10.3 students to one teacher–the same as in Salem and Watertown, a bit lower than Newton, which has 11.6 students per teacher.  In Newton, roughly 11% of students qualify for Free/Reduced Lunch; in Cambridge it is 44%.

I’m currently reading James Ryan’s book, Five Miles Away, A World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America (Oxford U. Press, 2010). Ryan is the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and his book contrasts a high school in Richmond, Virginia, with a suburban high school five miles away.  Noting that urban school districts often spend more than suburban districts, Ryan writes:

    “[T]he truth is that no one really knows how much it costs to provide a good education to poor students in high-poverty schools, which places urban schools like Tee-Jay [the Richmond HS] in a difficult bind.  They may receive more money than their suburban counterparts, but it still might not be enough….[But] the prevailing incentive among suburban legislators, whose constituents have no immediate stake in urban schools, is not to increase spending on city schools, but to limit it.  This political dynamic has naturally attracted legislators to alternative reforms that do not revolve around money.  The most important to have emerged over the last two decades are school choice and standards and testing. (Pg. 8.)

(Another low-cost reform is Professional Development.)

We don’t have very high poverty schools in Cambridge as compared with bigger and more segregated cities like Boston and Chicago, but we are not a suburban school system that primarily educates English-speaking, middle class students with college-educated parents and stable homes and incomes.  Almost half of our students have incomes low-enough to qualify for subsidized meals at school; a large percentage live in subsidized housing. So is $170-180 million a lot for Cambridge to spend on our schools? Too much? Not enough?  What would we be willing to spend to give our students schools and classrooms that were even better staffed in terms of number of qualified teachers per student?

Comments encouraged.  Thanks for reading.

*DESE website pages related to teachers per student and per pupil spending can be found on their “Profiles” pages:  DESE Profiles.  Look for the tabs labeled “Teachers” and “Finance.”

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3 thoughts on “Why Do We Spend So Much?

  1. I think you mean 15.3 students per teacher, not the other way around (check the 2nd paragraph of your revision). Not to quibble, but comparing the ratios of a 6-12 school and a 9-12 school more than 4x its size is kind of apples to oranges. I see where you’re going and agree with your overarching thesis that it’s the quality and quantity of classroom teachers that have the most immediate impact on a student’s experience. The biggest bang for the buck, if you will. Glad you asking these questions and using data to tell the story.


  2. Thanks for your question, Jan. I’ve revised the original post above to add:

    Right now, our district-wide student:teacher ratio (not the same as average class size) is 10.3 students to one teacher, which is the same as in Salem and Watertown, a bit lower than Medford and Randolph. In Brookline it’s 13.1 to 1–30% higher than Cambridge, but in terms of General Education teachers (excluding vocational, ELL, and special educators), the ratios are 13.5 students per teacher in Cambridge vs. 15.7 in Brookline–only 16% higher in Brookline. In Framingham and Waltham, that ratio (students per General Education teacher) is roughly the same as Cambridge–13-to-1. In the “W” town of Weston it’s 11.4 to 1 (2 students lower than Cambridge).

    At the high school level, comparing CRLS with the grade 6-12 Community Charter School of Cambridge (CCSC), the General Education teacher ratio at CRLS is 15.3 teachers per student as compared to 13.2 at CCSC. That’s a lot of numbers, but put it this way: If Cambridge had as many General Education teachers per student as Weston–11.4 to 1, we’d employ 90 more General Education teachers at an added cost of roughly $7-9 million dollars–an additional 4-5% on top of $170 million or paid for with 4-5% savings elsewhere. Ninety more teachers would go a long way toward smaller class sizes, more intervention teachers, and more co-taught classrooms.


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