With all the blaring headlines about California’s huge state budget deficit, one would think that education spending, which accounts for around 45 percent of the budget, would take a significant hit. Well, think again.
In the 2019-20 fiscal year, which was the last pre-pandemic budget, state General Fund spending for K-12 education and the community colleges was $79 billion. In Governor Gavin Newsom’s just proposed 2024-25 budget, funding for K-12 and the community colleges is slated for $109 billion, which is a staggering $30 billion more than in 2019-20.
To put that number in perspective, a $30 billion increase in education spending is almost as large as the entire budget deficit that Newsom claims the state is facing this year.
But one also has to remember that state General Fund spending is not the whole story. There are other funds that are earmarked for education, such as funding from the federal government. If one adds up all the funding for education in California from all sources, then total education spending in California comes up to $127 billion, which is $18 billion more than just state General Fund education spending.
Another way to look at spending is on a per pupil basis. If one looks at education funding from all state and federal sources, California spent about $17,400 per pupil in 2019-20. In comparison, Newsom’s 2024-25 budget proposes to spend $23,500 per pupil, which is a 35 percent increase since the budget enacted just five years ago.
Unfortunately, Californians are not getting bang for their tax buck. In 2019, 29 percent of California eighth graders tested proficient in math, which is a shockingly low proportion. Yet by 2022 an even worse 23 percent of state eighth graders tested proficient.
Newsom is proposing $13 billion for learning loss and learning recovery, but the money he has already spent in this area has not turned things around and it is unlikely that this new spending will make a huge impact in reversing the student achievement plunge.
What seems to matter most to Newsom is simply to keep spending high. For example, in his new budget he proposes to give schools a way to continue to receive funding even if students are chronically absent.
California has one of the highest rates of chronic absenteeism in the nation, with 30 percent of students being chronically absent from their schools.
Newsom’s budget “proposes statutory changes to allow [local education agencies] to provide attendance recovery opportunities to students to make up lost instructional time, thereby offsetting student absences, and mitigating learning loss and chronic absenteeism, as well as related fiscal impacts.” [emphasis added]
In other words, schools are given a way to continue to receive funding for students who are absent, often chronically. Thus, schools would be allowed “to add attendance recovery time to the attendance data submitted to the Department of Education, both for funding purposes (ADA reporting) and chronic absenteeism.” These attendance recovery programs can take the form of Saturday schools, intercession school, or before/after school programs and they would be exempt from minimum-day requirements.
Thus, schools would continue to receive funding based on students attending these programs even if they are not attending for the minimum time previously required for funding.
Yet, there is no indication that these programs will be geared to why these students are absent in the first place. If the teaching in California public schools is ineffective and does not meet the needs of many students, then simply having a Saturday school filled with more of the same is not going to solve the absenteeism crisis.
It therefore appears that the real purpose of Newsom’s funding change is to keep tax dollars flowing to failed public schools, not to address the needs of students who are being failed by those schools.
The important point is that more money does not necessarily improve education quality. How money is spent, not how much, is the key.
Take, for example, the wide funding disparity between regular public schools and charter schools.
In Oakland, regular pubic schools receive more than $21,000 per student, while charter schools receive less than $14,000 per student, a more than $7,000 difference.
Yet, despite receiving less funding, charter schools in the Oakland area do more for under-represented minority students such as African Americans.
In Alameda County, where Oakland is located, African-American charter school students outperform African-American students in regular public schools on state reading and math tests. Also, fewer African-American charter school students are chronically absent and more are prepared for college and careers. In fact, the proportion of African-American charter school students taking college prep courses in high schools is double the percentage of African-American students in regular public schools.
So the lesson is that schools do not need to spend huge amounts of money to get excellent results if those dollars are spent wisely.
Unfortunately, the state does not spend our tax dollars wisely and California therefore gets poor student outcomes despite bigger and bigger education budgets.
Take Newsom’s universal pre-kindergarten program. Around $2 billion has been poured into this program. Yet, a major study by Vanderbilt University found that Tennessee’s state pre-K program resulted in children having lower test scores, more learning disabilities, and more discipline problems.
According to one of the study’s authors: “There are people pushing to make pre-K a grade below kindergarten. Our data show that’s not likely to have good results for children.”
Newsom proposes $4 billion for so-called “community schools.” These schools incorporate healthcare and other non-education services into a supposed whole-child approach to learning. The California Teachers Association supports Newsom’s proposal, but as former U.S. assistant secretary of education Bill Evers notes, “there’s little evidence to support the claims that it improves academic achievement.”
Rather, writes Evers, community schools are “a clever new effort to use the public’s long-time attachment to public education to expand welfare-state services, promote critical race theory, and change school governance oversight by elected school boards to rule by teachers’ unions and select community members.”
Also, the budget proposes funding to implement the controversial California Mathematics Framework, which has been harshly criticized by experts for reducing the rigor of mathematics instruction. The budget deficit is a good reason to re-think funding the Framework’s implementation.
Finally, there are also some clearly ideological education spending proposals. For instance, Newsom proposes spending half a billion dollars for green school buses. Given the massive crisis in student learning, are green buses the best use of scarce funds for this coming fiscal year?
The bottom line is that Newsom’s education budget is bloated with programs that will not work, that protect the failed public education status quo, and that promote ideological and special-interest agendas. That is a budget recipe for disaster.
Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He is a former president of the California Community Colleges Board of Governor.