My Word: Insanity in San Mateo County school funding – Pacific Research Institute

My Word: Insanity in San Mateo County school funding

The San Mateo County Times, (CA), September 11 2009
Greenwich Time (CT), September 11, 2009

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 (CTA), 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 database is designed to help parents and policymakers find out how their local districts stack up. It also shows some glaring discrepancies among similar schools.

In San Mateo County, for instance, more than eight out of 10 of students in both the Menlo Park City Elementary and Woodside Elementary districts score proficient in English and math on the California Standards Test. Each of these districts is also a basic aid district capable of raising substantial funding through local taxes given their communities’ property wealth. Still, Woodside Elementary receives well over $6,000 more per student, $21,265 compared to Menlo Park City’s $14,855 — even though the proportion of low-income and English learner students is almost twice as high at Menlo Park City.

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

Pacifica and Jefferson Union High enroll similar proportions of English learners, but more Pacifica students achieve proficiency in English. At the same time, Pacifica receives more than $2,000 less per student than Jefferson Union — $9,644 compared to $11,749.

San Mateo 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 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 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.

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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