Orange County Register (Santa Ana, CA), March 15, 2009
Jack O’Connell, California’s superintendent of public instruction, recently claimed that Education Week’s latest Quality Counts report “ranks us a dismal 47th in the country” for school funding. That ranking needs some clarification, but the revenue that school districts actually receive would better inform the education policy debate.
About half of California’s regular school districts, 469 in all, already exceed Education Week’s national average of $9,963 per student. In fact, those regular unified, elementary, and high-school districts receive an average $12,800 in state and local funding per student. That average jumps to nearly $14,000 per student when federal funding is included. Yet, Superintendent O’Connell recommends more money.
“What I am asking for is greater investment at a time when the state is virtually broke,” he explained. “We must expect a different commitment from the citizens of California,” he said. Otherwise, “We will never be the great state our citizens deserve unless we invest in our future.”
Evidence from his own department, however, indicates that pouring more money into the current public school system is unlikely to have a discernable impact on overall student performance.
About half the students at the 469 above-average-funded regular school districts do not score proficient on the California Standards Test in math or English language arts, even though total per-student funding in some cases approaches or exceeds $20,000, even $30,000. Forget the national average, those amounts beat the U.S. Census Bureau’s grade-A funders hands down – even after adjusting their per-student funding to reflect California’s cost of living. These big spenders include Washington, D.C., which receives $18,700 per student, and New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey, where per-student funding ranges from $16,600 to $18,600.
Yet more money is no guarantee of higher achievement. Look at Orange County:
Slightly more than 70 percent of students at Laguna Beach Unified are proficient in English language arts and math; and more than 80 percent of students are proficient in those subjects at Irvine Unified. Irvine enrolls more socioeconomically disadvantaged students and English learners but Laguna Beach Unified receives $3,400 more per student, nearly $14,700 compared with $11,300 for Irvine.
Likewise, about as many students at Los Alamitos Unified and Brea Olinda Unified are proficient in English language arts and math as their peers in Laguna Beach. Los Alamitos and Brea Olinda also enroll more socioeconomically disadvantaged students and English learners, but they receive around $4,500 less per student than does Laguna Unified.
Instead of looking at what other states are spending, policy-makers should look at what California schools districts are accomplishing, since some districts are doing more with every education dollar they receive. Policy-makers should also examine why districts with higher proportions of socioeconomically disadvantaged students and English learners, who are more expensive to educate, actually receive less revenue.
In Orange County, districts with the highest proportions of those students get up to $1,600 less per student on average than districts with the lowest percentages. “Other” state and local funding for most of the restricted earmark categorical programs is primarily responsible for that disparity – even though those programs are largely intended to serve low-income and English-learner students. Orange County is not an isolated instance.
Average proficiency rates in English language arts and math among the all state’s highest-revenue regular school districts are nearly indistinguishable from the lowest-revenue regular districts. In fact, among California’s top 20 and bottom 20 revenue districts – unified, elementary, and high school – more students on average in the lowest-revenue districts are proficient in English language arts and math (53 percent) than their peers in the highest-revenue districts (48 percent).
Still, across California the number of regular school districts where a majority of students is not proficient outnumbers the school districts where a majority of students is proficient by about 3-1. The public cost is substantial. At school districts where a majority of students are not proficient, per-student revenue can range from $6,800 to nearly $33,000. This per-student funding range closely resembles the range of districts where a majority of students are proficient, from $8,000 to just over $29,000.
This California revenue review should not be taken to suggest that school districts’ funding should be slashed to the levels of the lowest-revenue districts, or ratcheted up to the highest levels. The numbers, however, reveal that the current system for financing public schooling is rife with deep disparities, inexplicable inequities, and inexcusable performance – even though hundreds of districts meet and exceed various national funding averages.
Even if every California school district were a national revenue leader, there is no guarantee they would lead in what matters most: student learning. More equity, more efficiency and more effectiveness – not simply more money – should be the guiding principles for California’s education reform debate.