Project Nickel: A New Tool to Help Parents and the Public Understand What Public Schools Spend

What does the local public school in your community spend per-student? A new technology tool developed by Lincoln Studio in partnership with EdChoice can give you an answer. 

Project Nickel is a first-of-its-kind search engine of U.S. public school per-student spending data required to be reported to the U.S. Department of Education under a bipartisan 2015 law. Parents and anyone interested in what a public school spends per child can quickly get an answer by simply entering the school’s name. 

“For years, it’s been hard to find out how much we spend on each and every school, but now, thanks to Project Nickel, that should be a thing of the past,” said Robert Enlow, President and CEO of EdChoice. “In these times and with all the disruption to families from Covid,  it is more important than ever to know how much we spend on K-12 education. This is why EdChoice and EdChoice’s Fiscal Research and Education Center was pleased to build a new partnership with Lincoln Network,” added Enlow.

“Every family in America has been impacted by covid-policy related decisions over the last year,” explained Lincoln Network Executive Director Garrett Johnson. “ The demand for more transparency regarding how decisions are made and resources allocated across the board, but especially when it comes to our public education system, have the potential to drive lasting change and I’m excited that Project Nickel will help fuel this movement.” 

As of May 2021, Project Nickel presents data from each of the 37 states that have complied with federal law and reported spending data to the Department of Education. (The Department of Education has not yet reported data from the following states and territories: California, District of Columbia, Nevada, Oregon, New Mexico, Texas, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico. Lincoln Network’s Studio team will update Project Nickel to include this data as soon as it is available.) Project Nickel currently includes data from nearly 50,000 public schools across the United States. 

Changing the way Americans think about public education funding 

Many Americans believe public education is underfunded and underestimate what schools spend per child. According to EdChoice’s 2020 Schooling in America survey, 53 percent of Americans think public school funding is too low in their state. But most people don’t know what public schools spend. The EdChoice survey of the general public and parents found that the median estimate was $5,000 per child. But that’s well below the lowest state’s average per-pupil expenditure. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the average per-pupil spending at public schools in 2017-18 was $13,800. This means that the average child who entered first grade in 2017 will likely have more than $160,000 spent on her education through high school. 

Why is public school per-student spending data important? 

Per-student spending provides an insight into what funding resources are available to teach children in a given school. For example, the average public school size in the United States is between 16 to 21 students, depending on grade level. This means that an average classroom of students will receive roughly $200,000 to $268,000 in funding during the typical school year. Understanding that public schools have significant capital and administrative costs, per-student spending levels help us understand what resources are available to pay teachers and support each child’s learning for a given year. 

Parents may also consider whether their child is receiving a high-quality education based on the available per-student funding. They may also think about how they could spend their child’s share of per-student funding if they had control of it through a scholarship or education savings account, which allows parents to direct how each of their child’s public education dollars are spent to support their learning. 

Is the United States achieving its longstanding goal of promoting equal opportunity in American K-12 education? 

As I detailed in a report for the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, the national policy of the United States has been to promote equal opportunity in K-12 education across Democratic and Republican administrations and Congresses since the 1960s. Historically there have been significant gaps in the public school resources available to children from rich and poor households. Nationally, these differences have narrowed dramatically (according to the Department of Education’s recent estimate of average school revenues by district poverty levels). But new public school per-student spending estimates will provide important insight into funding differences between schools and across school districts to understand whether policymakers are distributing funds equitably consistent with the nation’s commitment to equal opportunity.. 

Empowering parents and the public by providing transparency about public school spending 

Project Nickel’s purpose is to empower parents and the public with transparent information about the resources being spent at public schools. It is intended to begin conversations about how effectively public schools are spending those resources to ensure that every child has an opportunity to receive a high-quality education that prepares them to succeed.

Looking forward 

Lincoln Network is grateful for the financial support and collaboration of EdChoice to launch this project. For decades, EdChoice has been a national leader in educating the public about the quality of American K-12 education and advocating for reforms that give parents the ability to choose their children’s schools and direct their educational experiences. 

Project Nickel was created by Lincoln Studio, a nonprofit product studio within Lincoln Network. Studio’s mission is creating disruptive new tech solutions for big problems otherwise left waiting for policy change. The project was led by Ian Patterson. Engineers Jesus Garcia, Fabricio Policarpo, Joey Livingston, Aman Saran, and designer Babak Sha all played vital roles in creating Project Nickel.

We’d also like to offer warm thanks to the EdChoice working group for their collaboration on Project Nickel––Robert Enlow, Marty Lueken, Jennifer Wagner, Katie Brooks, and Paul DiPerna.

In the future, Lincoln Network will be working with partners in the education reform community to ensure that this data is accessible to all parents and members of the public who are interested in the future of American education. We will also be exploring partnerships with education researchers to consider how per-student funding levels can be compared to schools’ academic achievement levels to better understand the relationship between public education inputs and outputs.

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Dan Lips is director of national security and government oversight with Lincoln Network and a visiting fellow for education with the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity.

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