K-12 long-term debt reaches highest level on record

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Long-term education debt reached its highest levels on record in 2020, the most recent data sample available, reaching $505 billion.

That’s highlighted in Reason Foundation’s recent K-12 Education Spending Spotlight, which leans on U.S. Census Bureau data to show long-term debt has reached its highest level since the organization began releasing the report in 2002.

K-12 long-term debt was $316 billion in 2002 and increased steadily to reach $473 billion by 2010. Long-term debt levels have moved up and down, reaching a low point in 2012 with $446 billion, but steadily rose from 2014 onward.

Aaron Garth Smith, director of education reform at Reason Foundation and co-author of the study.

States with the highest long-term debt levels include Texas with $93.376 billion, California with $87.657 billion, New York with $28.234 billion, Pennsylvania with $24.622 billion, Illinois with $22.036 billion and Michigan with $19.77 billion.

States with the lowest levels of K-12 long-term debt on their books include Wyoming with $45 million, West Virginia with $282 million, New Hampshire with $756 million, North Dakota with $826 million and Rhode Island with $876 million.

All in, long-term debt grew by $188 billion between 2002 and 2020 or $3,798 per student, the Reason Foundation found.

K-12 short term debt in 2020 is almost identical to its 2002 levels at around $10 billion. Short-term debt rose to its recorded height in 2003, reaching $14.1 billion and hitting a low point ten years later with $7.3 billion in 2013.

States with the highest short-term debt as of 2020 include Texas with $4.75 billion, almost half of the nationwide total, New York with $3.37 billion, Illinois with $529 million, Nevada with $273 million and Michigan with $263 million.

Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming all had no short-term education debt.

“Well before the pandemic decimated student enrollment numbers, many states were already losing students,” the report said. 

22 states saw enrollment declines between 2002 and 2020, with Michigan and the District of Columbia experiencing the largest declines at 24%. Enrollment across the U.S. still rose 2% over the 18 year period.

Jordan Campbell, quantitative analyst for the Reason Foundation said while enrollment declines increased more significantly during 2020 as a result of COVID-19 disruptions, state debt levels continued to increase.

“They’re still going to have to pay that debt off with fewer students,” Campbell said. “You may see some of those per pupil debt numbers start to rise in the next few years.”

Total per-pupil revenue change across the U.S. from 2002-2020 was 25%, reaching its highest rate in states like New York at 70%, New Hampshire at 56% and Illinois at 55%.

Total capital outlay, which encompasses how much states spend on construction of buildings, roads and other improvements, has steadily risen from $52.1 billion across the U.S. in 2014 to $84 billion in 2020.

The passing of the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provided states with unprecedented amounts of federal stimulus, won’t be acknowledged on state debt or state expenditure levels for years to come, Campbell said, as many states are still in the midst of receiving their share.

“It’s going to be tricky to see how that plays out,” Campbell said. 

On the one hand, many states will be putting the large amounts of federal dollars to use on educational facilities and infrastructure immediately, while others could have canceled projects in the wake of pandemic shutdowns or take a couple of years to get other projects off the ground.

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