Student performance has much more to do with whether the students live in poverty than how much the district spends on them, recent data from the state shows.
Cape Girardeau schools spent nearly $2,000 more per pupil than Jackson did, $8,242 versus $6,264, while Jackson students scored about 15 percentage points higher on state tests, on average, during the 2006-2007 school year.
Likewise, the Leopold School District ranked as one of the lowest-spending districts in 13 Southeast Missouri districts at $6,247, yet academically scored the highest.
This is because students' poverty and a school's programming must be taken into account, said Dr. Julie Ray, an assistant professor of elementary, early and special education at Southeast Missouri State University.
While Cape Girardeau spends the most out of 13 Southeastern Missouri districts, is also has one of the highest percentages of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, 50.9 percent. Only 28.6 percent of Jackson students and 20.8 percent of Leopold students qualify, the two lowest percentages among the 13 districts.
Per-pupil spending is primarily based on operating costs, while excluding debt payments.
Ray said research has shown that there is a direct correlation between poverty level and a student's preparedness for school. While low-income families have to focus on survival needs, wealthier families have an easier time providing resources and experiences for their children.
"It is misleading to say everybody can spend the same amount of money and get the same results. Wealthier districts tend to be able to do a better job because kids are coming with the experience of having books read to them or being taken places. Districts that serve lower-income families have to spend more to make up for those differences," Ray said.
In Cape Girardeau, that includes funding an Alternative Education Center, a Career and Technology Center and a preschool program, all services that drive up costs but help students, administrators said.
Another reason Cape Girardeau's cost may be higher is because of its size, said Deena Ring, director of special services for Cape Girardeau.
"When you have 4,000 children, you are going to see a broader range of needs," she said.
Superintendent Dr. Ron Anderson said Jackson keeps its costs low by keeping staff costs down.
"We are probably lighter staffed than a lot of districts, and we might have larger class sizes. ... Sometimes you don't have a choice. You have the money available, and you have to work within those parameters," he said.
Jackson has an average teacher-student ratio of 1-to-21, while Cape Girardeau's is 1-to-18 and Leopold's is 1-to-13.
Jackson, however, does have the highest average teacher salary.
The state determines its funding to districts based on how much high-performing districts spend per pupil. In 2005, when the funding formula was last reworked, legislators decided it takes just over $6,000 a year to adequately educate a child.
State Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said districts of all sizes were considered in calculating the figure. Federal money to schools is based on poverty levels.
The average per-pupil expenditure cost is $8,687 in Missouri. All 13 Southeast Missouri districts spend under the state average.
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