California’s fiscal outlook continues to worsen. Concern has been steadily mounting over how the state’s budget deficit will impact 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 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 at www.schoolfinancecenter.org – 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.
Here in Torrance, for instance, a majority of students in the Torrance Unified District scored proficient in English and math on the California Standards Test. So did a majority in the Temple City Unified district, on the other side of Los Angeles County. But Temple City was able to achieve better rates of proficiency than Torrance despite having more economically disadvantaged students, more English learners and about $1,000 less per student – $9,265, compared with Torrance’s $10,167.
What’s more, Temple City performs as well or better than districts with fewer socioeconomically disadvantaged students or English learners, such as Santa Monica-Malibu Unified, which receives $13,716 per student, and Beverly Hills Unified, which receives $14,309 per student.
Conventional wisdom suggests that districts with more money perform better – but that’s not always the case.
Long Beach Unified and Norwalk-La Mirada Unified have similar socioeconomic profiles, but Long Beach Unified outperforms Norwalk-La Mirada in both math and English. At the same time, Long Beach Unified receives about $1,400 less per student than Norwalk-La Mirada, $10,974 compared with $12,466, and enrolls a higher proportion of English learners – 24.7 percent compared with 22.5 percent.
Parents and taxpayers in these school districts are entitled to wonder why they’re spending more money for inferior results. So are other Californians.
Statewide, school districts where a majority of students is 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, 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.