Is there more money for schools?

by Jeff Camp | February 8, 2015 | 0 Comments
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Depends on how you are counting.

By Carol Kocivar and Mary Perry [Feb 2015]

The headlines say the budget news out of Sacramento looks great for schools. For next year, 2015-16, Governor Brown proposes increasing K-12 education funding by about $7 billion. Yeah!!! That means more money for California schools – doesn’t it?

Let's take a closer look. Are we really investing MORE in our schools or are we just digging out of an economic hole? Figuring that out is a little like watching the stock market.

Let's say you bought a stock late in 2007 for $100 per share. Then when the economy crashed, its value dropped by 30 points, to $70. Fast forward to this year, over seven years later. The stock is back up to its original value.

The good news: you have recovered what you lost.

The bad news: no profit and your investment has lost ground to inflation, to say nothing of how the downturn affected the company you invested in. It was forced to cut key personnel, postpone pay raises or reduce salaries, and eliminate some key operations in order to make ends meet. That is what has happened to school districts in California. (See Chapter 8 in for lots more about school funding.)

Back to even is not enough.

In the 2007-08 school year, this state’s investment in its schools was at a high point. Yet even then, California lagged most of the nation in what it spent per student and also in student performance on national tests. In addition, the state had used a series of accounting tricks and I.O.U.s to schools to get through previous hard times.

We’re about back to where we were before the great recession.

Based on data from Education Week, school district expenditures per-pupil in 2007-08 (adjusted for the cost of living) averaged:

  • $8,852 in California;
  • $11,223 in the United States; and
  • $12,559 in Massachusetts, the state with the highest student performance.

Results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are often used to compare student performance among states and in 2007-08 California’s students were far behind most others. The percentages of students who scored as proficient or above in 8th grade reading were:

  • 29% in California;
  • 34% in the U.S. as a whole; and
  • 48% in Massachusetts.

After 2007-08 the bottom fell out of the state’s funding for K-12 schools. Average school district expenditures per pupil in California had decreased to $8,308 per student by 2011-12, even as the U.S. average went up to $11,735.

Well, now it’s 2015. Yes, thanks to California’s rebounding economy and Proposition 30, the state is restoring education funding. We’re about back to where we were before the great recession.

And there are clouds on the horizon.

Proposition 30 will soon expire, which could mean a net loss to education funding of about $3 billion, depending on the state’s overall economy. That's a cut of about $500 per student.

In addition, the state is finally addressing teacher pensions. That's a good thing, but it means school districts will have to pay more into the state's pension fund. According to one estimate, that will total $1 billion in 2015-16 and will rise to $3.1 billion per year in additional payments by 2019-20. Those together nearly equal this year’s increases.

What California settles for as "normal" other states would find completely unacceptable.

Other states—including high achievers like Massachusetts—continue to invest more in their schools while California struggles to keep the status quo. So what do the schools elsewhere in the U.S. have that California’s schools don’t? Or put another way, what might our schools spend money on now that funding is being restored—and what won’t they be able to afford? In a state with more than 10,000 schools, the answers are of course pretty varied. The hard reality, however, is that the conditions we settle for as “normal” in California would be completely unacceptable in most other states.

Top 10 List to Improve California Schools

We’ve leaned on the averages and research about effectiveness to create our top-10 list of potential investments that schools could make in order to be more similar to the rest of the country:

  • Add school counselors to support kids with behavior issues or who are struggling emotionally; and also add high school guidance counselors to help kids plan for college and career. (We’d have to nearly double our current number of counselors to get to the national average.)
  • Add professional school librarians and nurses, roles that have almost disappeared in California.
  • Hire more teachers so class sizes are smaller. California now has the largest class sizes in the nation. In high school, our class sizes are about twice the national average.
  • Give teachers more paid time to work together to plan instruction and improve effectiveness, and give them on-going professional support. Research shows this pays off in terms of student achievement.
  • Add technology and technical support personnel to keep it functioning and up-to-date.
  • Restore and/or expand summer learning programs that have been all but eliminated in many communities.
  • Make sure all kids in all schools have access to a full curriculum that at least includes high quality instruction in science, the arts, and physical education. (That’s to say nothing of financial literacy, civic education, and career preparation.)
  • Provide publicly funded, high-quality preschool so all kids enter kindergarten ready to learn.
  • Expand kindergarten to a full-day program. This is the norm in most other states.
  • Provide free home-to-school transportation, at least in low-income areas, at a level that even comes close to what other states provide (and that California provided 30 years ago).

We didn’t even mention safe, modern school buildings, but that could easily be number 11. We could list more, but you hopefully get the idea. You may even have others you would add.

Local school districts now have more power to choose.

Creating this kind of wish list locally—and being specific about how new investments could improve student outcomes—is exactly what school districts in California are now required to do. It’s part of the new LCFF funding system. And among other things, it assumes that folks concerned about effective schools will hold their local districts accountable for their spending decisions and their performance.

In other words, the “effectiveness” conversations in California are increasingly being held at the local level.

Is California willing to invest in its children and its future?

However, it will take state-level decisions to address the question of how much money California is willing to invest in its schools. Yes, the news is good this year, but the actual amount schools are getting only looks good compared to where we were a few years ago—not compared to what other states provide and what would enable our schools to provide the kind of educational programs our wish list reflects.

The future of our children and the economy of the state depend on how Californians look at the long-term options for strengthening our education investment.

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