California’s public education establishment continually argues that the state ranks near the bottom in funding K-12 education. A just-released study by the U.S. Census Bureau pokes a giant hole in these claims.
Those trying to portray California as miserly when it comes to education funding often cite figures put out by the National Education Association, the huge and powerful teachers union. The recent lawsuit filed by various public education special interests charging the state with failing to fund K-12 education adequately uses the NEA ranking purportedly showing California 44th among all states and the District of Columbia in education expenditures per pupil in 2008-09. In 2007-08, the NEA ranked California 41st.
The new Census Bureau study paints a much different picture. It is based on 2007-08 data, the latest year that full financial data are available. On two key indicators, California ranked above the median among the 50 states.
In terms of current spending per pupil, California ranked 23rd. Current spending is defined as instructional costs, which consist mainly of staff salaries and benefits, plus administration costs. While California’s current spending per pupil of $9,863 was slightly below the U.S. average of $10,259, it was higher than many other Western states. Current spending per pupil, however, does not tell the entire story.
Capital costs relating to school facilities, often paid by bond money, and other costs are not included in current spending per pupil. A more comprehensive measure of K-12 education funding is total revenue for education from all state, federal and local sources, in which California ranks 21st.
At $11,649, the state’s total revenue per pupil is just under the national average of $12,028, but is ahead of industrial states like Michigan and Indiana, and also ahead of most Western states. California also ranks ahead of those states with similar challenging demographics.
Some argue that California needs more funding than other states because it has large numbers of English-language learners. However, of the five states with the largest proportion of children of illegal immigrants – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and Texas – California expends significantly more on a per-pupil basis than any of them. Regardless of how much states spend, the real question is how much bang are they getting for all those taxpayer bucks. Achievement indicators confirm that spending does not correlate with student performance. Florida, for example, expends less per pupil than California, based on current spending or total revenue. However, a recent analysis by Matt Ladner of the Goldwater Institute and Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation finds startling comparisons between the performance of Florida and California students on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exam.
NAEP is often nicknamed the “nation’s report card” because it tests fourth- and eighth-graders on core-subject matter and is administered in most states. On the fourth-grade NAEP reading exam, Florida’s African-American and Hispanic students scored higher than the average for all students in California. Ladner and Burke attribute Florida’s success, in part, to that state’s wide array of parental-choice programs. These include the nation’s largest private-tuition tax-credit program, a voucher for special-needs students and one of country’s strongest charter-school laws. When Californians hear complaints that virtually all states spend more than California on public education, they should bear in mind that it’s not how much states spend but how tax dollars are spent that counts.