How much should schools spend to attract and retain students?

By Joe Nathan on June 6, 2013 at 10:03 am


A provocative email from a recently elected Central Minnesota school board member included the following: “The world is much different (than) when my parents made their decisions (about schools). I am struggling with how much tax money should be spent to retain and attract students.” Below is my response. Hope to hear what you think.

Recognizing that there are many ways to spend taxpayer dollars, here are ways I would and would not spend money to attract and retain students.

Improving a school’s or district’s program.  There’s no single thing that all families are seeking from school – except safety. If a school has a reputation as a place where bullying or other forms of violence are not dealt with, the school often will lose students. So safety has to be a top priority. Many schools survey their students about this and other issues. Surveying students and families about what they see as strengths and shortcomings seems like a top priority.

Also related to programs, the Minnesota Department of Education’s recent Rigorous Course Taking study shows growing interest in dual high school and college credit courses. (Find the study online at

MDE found, for example, that in the past three years, the number of students taking “College in the Schools” or “Dual Enrollment” courses increased from less than 19,000 to almost 22,000. The total number of students taking Advanced Placement exams increased over the past five years from about 26,000 to more than 35,000.

So a school board should study its dual credit program. If not much, building new partnerships, with higher education or other providers could be wise.

Spending more money on buildings. This was part of the school board member’s query. He wondered if additional money should be spent on improving older buildings or putting up newer ones. A great place to start answering this question is by going to the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities website ( NCEF has literally thousands of documents about topics such as which building features can save energy and money for taxpayers or how buildings can contribute to (or detract from) student learning.  (Note: I was an unpaid board member of NCEF, which formerly received federal funds.)

The school board member who contacted me mentioned that funds for buildings “could be used for staff, technology and supplies.” Although this is a very complex subject, in general, money for buildings from the state or from local property taxes can’t be used to pay for teachers or school supplies.

Advertising. Wise schools and districts communicate with families and the broader community. With the growth of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and other “social media,” opportunities to share information are increasing exponentially. But many families see through hype. They want accurate information about programs and accomplishments.  Rhetoric, which I sometimes see on school and district websites, is less persuasive than more specific information.

Most families are not just interested in test scores, attendance and graduation rates (although those matter and should be shared). Families also are looking for information about special opportunities the school offers. But word spreads if schools promise and don’t deliver.

Budgets are, in part, a reflection of a school’s priorities.  Wise schools and districts use their human and financial resources to strengthen and share their programs, progress and plans.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome, please comment below.