San Diego Union-Tribune, May 10, 2009
California’s fiscal outlook continues to worsen. Concern is now mounting over the impact the state’s budget deficit will have on education funding.
The California Teachers Association, along with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, claims California’s per-pupil funding now ranks 47th nationally. In reality, most experts agree California is around the middle of the pack when it comes to school funding, including the CTA’s own parent organization, the National Education Association.
But what matters to most California parents isn’t how much other states are spending – it’s the results their children’s school districts are getting compared with other school districts right here in California.
And on that front, California is doing poorly. It’s not because there’s too little funding. It’s because the state’s school financing system is illogical and inequitable.
The California School Finance Center database – a new project from the Pacific Research Institute and Just for the Kids-California that compiles data from a dozen California Department of Education sources – helps shed some much-needed light on this reality. The database is designed to help parents and policy-makers find out how their local districts stack up.
The data show some glaring discrepancies among similar school districts. In San Diego County, for instance, a majority of students at both La Mesa-
Spring Valley Elementary and Jamul-Dulzura Union Elementary scored proficient in English and math on the California Standards Test. But Jamal-Dulzura receives nearly $3,000 more per student – $12,402, compared with La Mesa-Spring Valley’s $9,459. Despite receiving less funding and having more English-learners, La Mesa-Spring Valley posted a better English proficiency rate than Jamal-Dulzura.
Conventional wisdom suggests that districts with more money perform better – but that’s not always the case.
Del Mar Union Elementary and Solana Beach Elementary have similar socioeconomic profiles, but Del Mar outperforms Solana Beach in both math and English. At the same time, Del Mar Union receives $3,600 per student less than Solana Beach, $11,504 compared with $15,112, and enrolls a higher proportion of English-learners, 11.4 percent compared with 9.5 percent.
San Diego County parents and taxpayers are entitled to wonder why their school districts may be spending more money for inferior results. So are other Californians.
Statewide, school districts where a majority of students are not proficient outnumber those where a majority are proficient by about 3-to-1. In fact, average student proficiency rates in English and math at the state’s bottom 20 revenue districts, which average $8,900 in funding per student, are actually higher than proficiency rates at the top 20 revenue districts, which average more than $19,200 in funding per student.
State and local per-student funding should also be higher in districts that enroll children whose educational needs make them more expensive to educate, such as low-income students or English-learners. Yet on average, state and local funding actually decreases as the proportions of these children increase.
Such funding disparities can translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars less for classrooms with the greatest need for additional teachers, books and intensive instruction programs.
Money does matter when it comes to public school performance, but just as important is how effectively that money is used. The California School Finance Center database is designed to present the most complete picture possible of how much funding California public school districts and charter schools receive – and how well they perform. With the database, it is now easier to identify which public school districts and charter schools are making the most of every education dollar and emulate their success.
Murray is associate director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento.
Online: The California School Finance Center database developed by PRI and Just for the Kids-California at schoolfinancecenter.org.