Money doesn’t give the whole picture in evaluating schools

Reason Foundation, August 17, 2009
Flash Report, August 17, 2009
UCLA Education News Roundup, August 20, 2009

California’s fiscal outlook continues to worsen. Concern is now mounting over the impact that 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 that California’s per-pupil funding ranks 47th nationally. In reality, most experts – including the CTA’s parent organization, the National Education Association – agree California is around the middle of the pack in school funding.

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 policymakers find out how their local districts stack up.

The data show some glaring discrepancies among similar school districts. In Sacramento County, for instance, Elk Grove Unified enrolls a higher proportion of English learners and socioeconomically disadvantaged students than does Natomas Unified. And yet a majority of Elk Grove students are proficient in English and math on the California Standards Test, while less than half of Natomas students are proficient in either subject. Despite this discrepancy, Natomas receives nearly $3,200 more per pupil than Elk Grove – $13,015 compared with $9,928.

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

Elk Grove and Sacramento City Unified, the two largest districts in Sacramento County, enroll similar numbers of English learners, but Elk Grove outperforms Sacramento City by nearly 10 percentage points in English and eight percentage points in math. At the same time, Elk Grove receives nearly $2,200 per student less than Sacramento City does.

Sacramento 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.

The California School Finance Center database developed by the Pacific Research Institute 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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