The CTA’s Latest Ads: A Dishonest Defense of a Dysfunctional Monopoly

Flash Report (CA), January 23, 2009

Public school funding is plunging to the bottom of the national spending barrel, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest budget “attack” on education is to blame—or so the California Teachers Association claims.

In their latest statewide radio ad campaign, the CTA claims California “sank” to 47th nationally in school spending according to Education Week’s annual Quality Counts ranking. What doesn’t make the airwaves is that California actually floated up from 48th place on last year’s Education Week ranking—when CTA president David A. Sanchez first claimed that the governor’s 2009-2010 budget would “certainly guarantee that the amount California spends on its students remains locked at the bottom nationwide.”

Of course, if that were true at least California would have plenty of company. Florida, Illinois, Nebraska, Nevada, and Oklahoma also claimed to be 48th in school funding last year. The truth is where a state falls on any given ranking depends largely on what dollars are counted as “education funding.” Politically sensitive figures like school debt, facilities, and employee benefits, for example, are oftentimes excluded.

State and national experts agree that California is about average when it comes to school spending—including the CTA’s own parent organization, the National Education Association, which ranks California in 25th place nationally. As U.S. Department of Education statistician Frank Johnson cautions, “California per-pupil funding is near the middle [nationally]. Some people are presenting data in a way that supports their (political) views.”

The CTA’s latest media blitz is a dishonest defense of a dysfunctional monopoly for which no amount of money, it seems, will ever be enough. Constructive policy recommendations, not scare tactics, are the first step to improving education quality for all students.

California was once a national leader in academic achievement. Today it ranks 48th in basic reading and math performance. At $40 billion, California’s annual state general-fund spending just on K-12 public education rivals numerous Fortune 500 companies in revenue, albeit not results, outranking Intel, Walt Disney, Apple, Gap, Google, Hilton Hotels, and Yahoo, to name a few.

Total public school funding from all state, local, and federal sources is much more, increasing to almost $70 billion in real inflation-adjusted terms from the 2003-04 school year to the 2006-07 school year. That’s nearly a 10-percent funding increase at a time when statewide enrollment decreased more than 30,000 students.

As important as the level of education funding is how well it’s being used. California has the world’s eighth largest 21st-century economy but its public schooling system functions like a 19th-century planned economy.

Students are largely assigned to schools based on where their parents can afford to live, which means schools do not have to work at attracting or keeping students. In contrast, 70 percent of the countries that outperformed the United States in combined math and science literacy among 15-year-olds had more schools competing for students, according to data from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Consequently, students in such countries as Communist China, Japan, Hong Kong, and Germany, as well as former Soviet-bloc countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Slovak Republic, and Latvia all enjoy more education options than their American peers.

By expecting their public schools to compete for students, top global performers get results in less time and at a fraction of the expense. Among the 32 countries participating in the latest OECD assessment, the United States has the most teaching hours per public school year, 1,080 compared to the international average of 803. Top international performers Germany and the Netherlands have around 775 hours each. Finland has 600, while Korea has roughly 575. With 505 teaching hours per school year, Japan has the least of all OECD assessment countries.

Another common feature among global academic leaders is performance pay for teachers. Fourteen OECD participating countries reward teaching performance. In nine of those countries schools, not state governments, determine performance-pay policies: the Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and Slovenia. Schools that compete for students also get more bang for every education buck.

Public school spending for a single California student through age 15 amounts to about $85,000 compared to average spending of $53,000 among the 20 countries that outperform the United States in math. These countries include several Eastern European nations ($15,000 to $30,000), Korea ($42,000), Japan ($60,000), and even top-spending European countries such as Austria and Switzerland ($75,000 and $80,000).

If California schools matched the average productivity of schools in those 20 countries, the annual savings would amount to nearly $20 billion. If they matched the productivity of Slovak schools, the estimated annual savings to California would be $42 billion—enough to wipe out the current deficit.

Fudging the funding rankings may grab headlines for the teachers union, but the empirical evidence confirms that resources do not equal reform; a competitive education system does. Legislators should keep that in mind if they want to transform California into an academic leader.

Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D. is a senior fellow in Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento.

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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