State-run district’s per-pupil expenditure not included on state report card

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, one of five Memphis schools directly run by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”