New California School Finance Center Database Brings Transparency to Public Education Finance

With the state’s budget deficit worsening, concern grows over the impact on school funding and Californians seek a way to make informed decisions about education policies affecting millions of school children each year. The just-launched California School Finance Center online database brings much-needed transparency amidst the charges and countercharges.

The California Teachers Association, for example, says more than $11 billion will be cut from school budgets. The CTA, along with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, also say that this year California “sank” to 47th nationally on Education Week’s school spending ranking. Yet California actually moved up from 48th place on that same ranking last year.Others say California falls around the middle of the pack when it comes to school funding, including the CTA’s own parent organization the National Education Association.

In fact, O’Connell’s own department posts that NEA statistic on its website. What really matters to Californians, however, isn’t how much other states are spending.What matters is the results their children’s school districts are getting—or not getting— for the money they spend, compared to other school districts right here at home.

That is why the California School Finance Center database compiles information from a dozen California Department of Education sources and puts it right at users’ fingertips.The database presents total and per-student revenue for more than 1,300 California school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools spanning five years, and it will be updated regularly.

Unlike any resource currently available, the database does not cherry-pick the data. It presents complete revenue from local, state, and federal sources, all broken down into the finest level of detail. The California School Finance Center database also presents student achievement, demographic, census, and staff salary data alongside revenue data. It even includes a “Return on Investment” feature developed by Just for the Kids-California to help quantify the relationship between a school district or charter school’s revenue, and its ability to increase student achievement.

Analysis of this information confirms the growing consensus that California’s public school finance system is irrational. Worse, it is rife with deep disparities, inexplicable inequities, and inexcusable performance. For the 2006-07 school year per-pupil revenue averaged $11,600 per-student, but that average conceals needless complexity and wide funding variances. For example, because districts are held harmless for two years if student enrollment drops, funding can increase even though enrollment declines.

Statewide, public school funding increased, in real terms, nearly 10 percent between the 2003-04 and 2006-07 school years, while student enrollment declined by more than 30,000 students. The current finance system is also riddled with funding inequities. State and local per-student funding should be higher in districts that enroll children whose educational needs make them more expensive to educate, such as low-income students or English-learners. On the contrary, state and local funding actually decreases as the proportions of these children increase, amounting to thousands of dollars less per-student.

This inequity can translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars less for classrooms with the greatest need for additional teachers, books, and intensive instruction programs. But what about all those school districts getting more money? Conventional wisdom would suggest that their student achievement rate must be higher—except in many cases it isn’t.

The number of regular school districts where a majority of students is not proficient on the California Standards Test outnumbers the school districts where a majority of students is proficient by about three to one. In fact, average student proficiency rates in English language arts and math at the state’s bottom 20 revenue districts averaging $8,900 per student are actually higher than proficiency rates at the top 20 revenue districts averaging more than $19,200 per student.Money does matter when it comes to public school performance, but just as important is how effectively that money is being used.

The California School Finance Center database is designed to present the most complete picture possible of how much money California public school districts and charter schools are receiving, and how well they are performing. 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 online here.

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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