Census Bureau Misleads Media

Bureau of the Census press release issued on April Fool’s day (!) bore the title: “Public Schools Spent $9,138 Per Student in 2006.” Lots of media folks fell for their gag, including the Washington Times and the Examiner.

Here’s the joke: the Census Bureau’s own Excel file reports total spending in public schools for 2006 as $526,648,505,000 (sheet “1”, cell G9). It also reports total enrollment as 48,380,507 (sheet “18”, cell E8). Are you seeing anything hinky yet? Divide the first number by the second and you get $10,886that is total per pupil spending for US public schools during the 2005-2006 school year.

What gives? The headline number used by the Bureau was NOT total spending per pupil, it was only “current operating spending” per pupil – that means it excluded capital spending on building upgrades and new construction as well as interest on debt (see Table 8 of their .pdf report). The word “current” in this sense refers not to the period in which the data were collected but to the categories of spending encompassed.

The case of DC is even more egregious. The Census reported, and the media picked up, the “current expenditure figure of $13,466, but presented it as though it encompassed all spending. In fact, if you divide the Census’s own total DC spending figure by its own total enrollment figure, you get a total per pupil spending figure of $18,098 for Washington, DC in 2005-06

But even this figure is a misleading understatement of per pupil spending in district schools, because it lumps district schools together with (thriftier) charter schools. Take that into account and you can begin to see how total spending in district schools has ballooned to the $24,606 I reported yesterday.

If the Bureau of the Census wants to discharge its responsibility to serve the public with accurate, meaningful statistics, it should stop misleading the media with ambiguous language hooked to ”current” spending figures and explicitly give both “current” and total spending figures. It should also offer estimates of total spending at the time of their press releases, extrapolating from historical trends, because their data are always outdated by two or more years, and hence always understate spending at the present time.