U.S. School Debt at $226 Billion in 2001-02

Debt for the nation's school districts rose 12 percent to $226 billion in the 2001-02 school year, according to Census Bureau (search) data released Tuesday.

The increase came when communities — many still paying off huge debts from the school construction boom of the 1990s — encountered mounting budget woes as the U.S. economy worsened.

In turn, schools struggled to meet the sobering challenges of hiring more teachers, reducing class sizes, fixing older facilities and meeting stricter educational quality guidelines, some advocacy groups say.

The Census Bureau figures, although the latest available, are two years old, and therefore don't account for the bulk of costs associated with the No Child Left Behind Act (search), the sweeping education reforms pushed by President Bush and signed into law in 2002.

"You've got enormous costs on the horizon for most school districts," said Daniel Kaufman, spokesman for the National Education Association (search).

Collectively, spending for public elementary and secondary school systems, rose about 6 percent to $435 billion.

Districts spent just over $7,700 per pupil, not accounting for costs related to construction or capital needs. That's up from $7,284 the previous year.

There were wide variations among the states, ranging from the over $10,000 spent per pupil in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and the District of Columbia; to five states that spent less than $6,000 per student — Utah, Mississippi, Arizona, Idaho and Tennessee.

School enrollment in 2002 was just under 47.2 million nationally, down slightly from 2001, although it was impossible to tell if that was a true enrollment decline because of a change in the way the Census Bureau compiled the data.

The report comes as political debate rages over whether federal dollars should foot for more of the expense of federally pushed initiatives. A recent report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, said states were paying $10 billion for improvements in special education and $9.6 billion for No Child Left Behind.

Most funding for school systems — about 93 percent — comes from state and local tax dollars.

Edward Kealy, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, said the federal government was shortchanging states and localities. Many communities have made up for shortfalls by increasing classroom sizes or raising local tax dollars, he said.

Opponents point to a study by the Congressional Budget Office, Congress' investigative arm, that found that the No Child Left Behind Law and the special education initiatives are voluntary programs, and technically aren't government mandates.