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Annual Survey of School System Finances Methodology

The methodology section describes how the Census Bureau collected the 2020 Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data and how the published data were generated. Select the appropriate topic below for information on the sampling frame, collection periods, collection methods, editing, imputation, sampling error, response rates, and nonsampling error.

Population of Interest: 2020

The universe consists of 14,783 school systems (as counted for the 2019-2020 survey cycle in a May 2021 listing of school systems in the Governments Master Address File) and is distributed as follows:



Independent School Districts                                                                12,210

Dependent Educational Service Agencies (ESAs)                                 1,448

Dependent School Systems (not-ESAs)                                                 1,125



The Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has maintained annual reimbursable agreements with the Census Bureau that require the collection and dissemination of universe school finance data. This requirement has been in place since the 1994-1995 fiscal year survey period. The full universe (14,783 for the 2019-2020 survey cycle) of school systems is included in the annual survey.

Data are of the financial activity of public elementary and secondary school systems. Related data on public school system employment are available in the Census Bureau's Annual Local Government Employment reports. Information for higher and other education systems can be found in separate annual and Census of Governments reports that focus on the finances of states, counties, cities and towns, and government finances in general.

Data Collection: 2020

Confidentiality: Data collected for the Annual Survey of School System Finances are public record and are not confidential as authorized by Title 13, United States Code, Section 9.

Dates of Collection: The following are important dates in the data collection process.

2020 Annual Survey of School System Finances
January 2021 Initial mailout
March 2021 Follow-up mailout
May 2021 Begin data processing
May 2022 Data editing complete
May 2022 Released to Census Bureau Internet

Methods: The data in this survey are for all public elementary and secondary school systems centrally collected from each state. The survey cycle begins in January when states begin submitting data for the previous fiscal year. The data collection process is typically completed by April of the following year. The information included is intended to provide a complete picture of a government's financial activity. All revenue (by source), expenditure (by function and object), indebtedness, and cash and security holdings are requested.

The Census Bureau has attempted to identify all central sources for public elementary-secondary finance data. Most of these sources exist at the state government level. Many state agencies, especially state education agencies, collect financial data for the local units within their domains.

The Census Bureau has made arrangements with state government departments of education to use data from existing finance information collection systems where the data are compatible with this survey's categories. Every state department of education obtains information annually on a wide variety of financial data from elementary-secondary school systems by requiring reports or conducting surveys. The Census Bureau is able to gain access to this information through cooperative agreements with each state as summarized below:

  1. Data compiled or reformatted by Census Bureau staff from state education agency electronic data files (17 states).
  2. Data reformatted by state education agency staff into survey categories before electronically transmitting or mailing data to the Census Bureau (33 states and DC).

A single office or database in the departments of education did not always have all of the information needed for this survey. In these instances, other sources – most often different state offices – supplied information to supplement the basic data. The most common types of data needing supplementation were school lunch finances, indebtedness, cash and security holdings, and capital fund transactions.

The collection arrangements have a number of distinct advantages. First, because the Census Bureau is able to use data from state government data systems, the response burden on local school system administrators is lessened. Second, the close relationship between local school systems and state departments of education minimizes any nonresponse.

Financial data for school systems were summed to create state aggregates. Census Bureau staff reviewed the state aggregates for consistency with prior year information. The state aggregates were also compared with the financial data collected in the National Public Education Financial Survey by the NCES and state totals released by state education agencies. During the review of state aggregates, Census Bureau technical staff requested assistance from state officials and the NCES to resolve differences. Most of these differences involved the inclusion of state payments on behalf of local education agencies in state education agency and the NCES totals. The state education agencies and the NCES furnished information about these payments that enabled the Census Bureau to provide state source revenue and current spending categories shown in Tables 1 through 8, Tables 11 through 18, and Table 20 of the Census Bureau's summary tables file.

Data Processing: 2020

Editing: The extensive use of central collection of elementary-secondary finance data requires the maintenance of state-specific crosswalks that define the state data items which comprise each of the items reported by the Census Bureau. The Census Bureau tries to mitigate coverage error by performing checks against various other sources of school system data: the NPEFS state totals, NCES listing, and the Census Bureau's Governments Master Address File. These checks identify cash and debt flow problems, significant current year/prior year differences, illogical salary/current spending relationships, out-of-scope per pupil expenditure, and other peculiarities. Census Bureau staff resolve edit and other problems by rechecking data sources for entry errors, reviewing state and other reports that contain the same type of information, and making follow-up calls to state and local officials.

The inclusion of all financial transactions, except for interfund transfers and some fiduciary activities, allows for effective review and editing. It enables respondents and Census Bureau staff to take a global view of government finance and to perform basic cash flow logic checks.

Sampling Error: The data are not subject to sampling error since the Census Bureau attempts to contact every school system.

Data Quality: 2020

Nonsampling Error: The data are subject to various nonsampling error:

An incomplete listing of all school systems in the United States would result in coverage errors. The Census Bureau tries to mitigate coverage error by performing checks against various other sources of school system data: the NPEFS state totals, NCES listing, and the Census Bureau's Governments Master Address File. We also request information from the State Department of Education in each state.

Nonresponse error results from incomplete responses to items on the forms. In order to produce a complete data set, the Census Bureau attempts to call back respondents, uses alternative sources for the data, or imputes for missing data.

Various other nonsampling errors include: response error which results from inaccurate reporting of the data, keying error which results from mistakes when entering the data, and classification error which results from placing the data in the wrong categories. All of these errors are mitigated by editing of the individual unit data. Both the central collector and Census Bureau perform data quality checks.


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