Census: Public Schools Amassing More Debt

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The nation's public school systems are sinking further into debt, the Census Bureau (search) reported Thursday. They were saddled with over $250 billion in tuck with huge debts to pay for new buildings to accommodate a surging student population. Nationally, enrollment grew slightly to 47.6 million, up 1 percent.

Other districts have struggled to find money to fix older buildings or hire more teachers.

The data, the latest available, also reflect the first full school year after the No Child Left Behind Act (search) was signed into law in January 2002. The sweeping reforms aimed at upgrading school performance are a cornerstone of President Bush's education policy.

Collectively, spending for public elementary and secondary school systems increased roughly 4 percent to $453 billion in 2003. That included over $38 billion in that school year alone for construction costs.

Overall, the nation's public school districts spent $8,019 per student, up about $400 per student from the previous year. The per-pupil costs do not account for construction or other capital needs.

Spending varied widely, with Northeastern states again atop the list. The District of Columbia, New Jersey and New York each spent over $12,000 per pupil.

Utah ranked last in per-pupil spending at nearly $4,900, while Arizona and Mississippi each spent less than $6,000 per student.

The No Child Left Behind law requires schools to show yearly progress among all major groups of students, with the goal of getting all children up to grade level in reading and math.

Democratic leaders angry with the first go-round of the education law say schools have not received enough money and that Bush's latest budget proposal would make it worse by cutting overall spending.