Making the most of education dollars

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 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 data show some glaring discrepancies among similar school districts. In Santa Clara County, for instance, a majority of students in both the Mountain View Whisman and San Jose Unified school districts scored proficient in English and math on the California Standards Test. Yet the San Jose Unified district receives over $2,000 more per student – $13,276, compared to Mountain View Whisman’s $11,271. Despite less funding and 72 percent more English learners, more Mountain View Whisman students achieved proficiency than San Jose Unified students.

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

Santa Clara County parents and taxpayers are entitled to wonder why their school districts may be receiving 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 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 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 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. 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.

Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., 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

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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