How K-12 support services spending can divert education funding from instruction
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How K-12 support services spending can divert education funding from instruction

Nationally, per pupil support services expenditures grew by 25% from 2002 to 2020, outpacing growth in per pupil instructional expenditures, which increased by 20% over the same period.

Data from the 2019-20 school year indicate that the U.S. spent $771 billion from federal, state, and local sources on public K-12 education. Previous analyses of instructional spending have shown how education spending has substantially increased between 2002 and 2020 but rising benefit costs have swallowed up a lot of those new dollars. There are also important support services spending trends reflected in the latest K-12 Education Spending Spotlight data. 

National Trends in Support Services Spending

Support services are a broad category of K-12 education expenditures that cover all operational spending that isn’t direct student instruction. These include social workers, guidance counselors, and health services as well as administrative and instructional support costs.

Nationally, inflation-adjusted per-pupil support services expenditures grew by 25% from 2002 to 2020, outpacing growth in per-student instructional expenditures, which increased by 20% over the same period.

In 2020, the inflation-adjusted national average for support services spending was $4,815 per-pupil, up from $3,841 per student in 2002, while the average per-pupil instructional expenditure was $8,176, up from $6,818 per student in 2002. Use the drop-down tool in the below charts to see changes in support service and instructional spending for each state.

Our analysis shows that the increase in support services spending has been driven by a disproportionate increase in benefit costs for support service personnel. These findings are corroborated by data from the National Center for Education Statistics which show a steady increase in total support personnel, as well as the total share of school staff that is considered support personnel, over the last few decades. In fact, 49% of the overall increase in per-pupil support services spending between 2002 and 2020 is attributable to benefits alone. This means the share of total support services spending going to staff benefits rose from 15% in 2002 to 22% in 2020.

This trend whereby increased education spending gets swallowed up by employee benefits has similarly been observed in the instructional spending category. My colleague Aaron Smith explains:

“One substantial cost-driver is spending on instructional and support staff benefits, a Census expenditure category that includes teacher pensions, health care insurance, retiree health care insurance, and other expenses. Disaggregated figures aren’t available, but research suggests that teacher pension costs are responsible for a substantial share of the growth observed in the last two decades.”

The Spending Spotlight also breaks down support services spending by function, meaning that users can observe what kinds of services are driving spending increases. Importantly, when looking at support services spending by function category, salary and benefit costs are included in those figures but are divided into subgroups of support services. 

Although each category of support services spending grew between 2002 and 2020, the largest contributor to the overall growth was student support services, which increased from $556 to $864 per student during this timeframe. This means more spending on guidance counselors, social workers, and school psychologists as well as more specialized services for special needs students like speech pathology and occupational therapy.

Though there are many factors contributing to the outsized growth in pupil support service spending, explanations potentially include the significant growth in students identified as having disabilities over the last few decades as well as an alarming spike in mental illness reports in teens.

State Trends

Individual state spending trends vary widely. For instance, many of the country’s highest education spenders—northeastern states like Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire as well as Washington and Hawaii—also saw increases in per-pupil support services spending of 60% or higher from 2002 to 2020. Conversely, several states saw only small increases in support services spending—with Florida, Oklahoma, Idaho, and Michigan having increases of less than 5% per-pupil from 2002 to 2020. The below map shows inflation-adjusted per-pupil support service spending growth for each state.

In general, the states that have seen the largest increases in support services spending are also states that have seen the largest increases in overall education revenues per student between 2002 and 2020. Similarly, the states that saw the smallest increases to support services also saw some of the smallest increases in overall revenues in that timeframe.

However, some states have a trend whereby support services spending has well outpaced the overall increase in revenues. Missouri, for instance, saw a 6% increase in total per-pupil revenues between 2002 and 2020 but saw a 26% increase in per-pupil support services spending. Arkansas also had a 17% increase in all per-pupil revenues but had an outsized jump in per-pupil support services spending of 36%.


While some could argue that adding support staff and other contracted services is a good way to supplement how students are doing in classrooms, prioritizing new funds for support services could be causing unnecessary staffing bloat in some states. Outsized growth in support staff can pull funds away from instruction. For example, return to the cases of Arkansas and Missouri—which again saw a 36% and 26% increase in per-student support services spending, respectively, from 2002 and 2020. During that time frame, Arkansas only managed a 7% increase in per-student instructional spending and Missouri only a 3% increase in per-student instructional spending. 

At the national level, this preference for using new education funds for support services rather than instruction has also played a part in keeping inflation-adjusted teacher salaries flat over the last three decades.

When state policymakers and local leaders are making decisions about where to spend new education funds, they should consider how further investment in support services may impact competitive teacher pay as well as responsible management of the pension obligations that are driving the rise in benefit costs.

Find Reason Foundation’s full K-12 Education Spending Spotlight here.