Fuzzy funding for L.A. County schools make little sense

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. 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 to 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 policymakers find out how their local districts stack up.

The data show some glaring discrepancies among similar school districts. In Los Angeles County, for instance, most students in both the Temple City Unified and Santa Monica-Malibu Unified school districts score proficient in English and math on the California Standards Test. Yet the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified district receives $4,000 more per student – $13,700, compared with Temple City’s $9,265. Fewer Santa Monica-Malibu students achieve proficiency.

Conventional wisdom suggests that districts with more money perform better – but that’s not always the case.

Newhall Elementary and Sulphur Springs Union Elementary have similar socioeconomic profiles and enroll similar proportions of English Learners, but Newhall outperforms Sulphur Springs Union by nearly 15 percentage points in both English and math. At the same time, Newhall spends $1,000 per student less than Sulphur Springs Union does – $8,682 as opposed to $9,708.

Los Angeles 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 most students are not proficient outnumber those where a majority is proficient by about three to one. 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, like 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 fewer dollars 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. With the database, it is easier to identify which public school districts and charter schools are making the most of every education dollar and emulate them.

Vicki E. Murray is associate director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento. The California School Finance Center database developed by PRI and Just for the Kids-California is accessible at schoolfinancecenter.org.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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