Which school do you want to support?
Is it true that students in California receive less support for their education than students in other places?
Yes. It’s true.
California consistently skimps on education. The California Budget and Policy Center reports that California’s support for K-12 education ranks low by almost any measure. “In 2014-15, California ranked 42nd among all states in spending per K-12 student, after adjusting for differences in the cost of living in each state.”
California was once a top funder of public education, but that was long ago. A 2016 report, “California’s Challenge: Adequately Funding Education in the 21st Century”, estimates that “the amount of additional funding that would be needed to move California to the average funding level of the top 10 states is $47 billion to $56 billion, roughly a doubling of current state funding.” In a long, slow slide, California has joined Florida and Texas toward the bottom of the national stack. Funding per student in California, adjusted for inflation, is only slightly above where it stood forty years ago.
There has been an uptick in per pupil spending since the low of the great recession thanks to a growing economy and the passage of Propositions 30 and 55, but California still lags the 2014 national average of $12,156. The chart below breaks this down by showing the average California spending by type of school district.
If California's low funding per student is news to you, you are in good company. Most Californians have no idea that funding for their schools is so meager. According to a 2012 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California "Fewer than four in 10 Californians (36%) think that the state’s per pupil spending for K–12 public education is below average compared to other states."
Over half of Californians believe that per-pupil spending in this state is near the top, or at least average. They are mistaken. Education spending per student in California is very low relative to other states, and has been since the 1970's. How low? Consider this: the ten states that fund education most generously, on average, spend more than $7,500 more per year on each student than California does. Over 13 years of skimpy schooling, that's an investment gap on the order of $100,000 per student.
How can this be? Isn't California a rich, high-tax state?
Yes, California is a fairly rich state. Based on the 5 years from 2009 to 2013, the state's median household income of about $61,489 exceeded the US average of $53,482 by a full 15%.
And yes, California also collects higher taxes than most states. California's state and local tax receipts relative to the state economy exceed the national average by about 7%. For the 2009-10 fiscal year, California's Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) pegged California's state and local tax burden at $11.30 per $100 of personal income, high enough to put it in the top ten states in the country. (High-income taxpayers might be surprised that the state's overall tax rate exceeds the national average by only 7%. They might also be surprised to learn that the tax system in the state is regressive, meaning that lower income taxpayers carry a higher burden than wealthier taxpayers.)
If California has an economic tax base 15% larger than average per household, and levies state and local taxes at a rate 7% higher than average, how can it possibly fund K-12 education so far below average per student?
A small part of the answer is that California is a youthful state with more students per taxpayer than most states. Funding for education must be spread among more students in California than in most other states. Texas faces this challenge to an even greater extent than California. Florida, famous as a retirement destination, has a relative abundance of taxpayers per student.
Age demographics cannot fully explain California's skimpy education funding. For the last four decades, most states have committed a greater slice of their overall economic resources to education than California has done. (The level of funding for education as a percentage of the economy is sometimes called education funding "effort.")
In 2014-15, public primary and secondary education accounted for about 3.48% of California's economy. Powered by passage of Proposition 30 and a big boost in the state's education budget, this was a significant increase in "effort" from prior years in California. Nevertheless, California still lagged in its level of commitment to education relative to the rest of the states, where education accounted for 3.94% of the economy.
If budgets are an expression of values, does the state's long pattern of anemic investment mean that Californians place a relatively low value on public education? It might. Since 1970, California has increased spending on prisons and incarceration about three times as much as it has increased spending on education.
California's habit of skimpy investment in education since the 1970s is strongly connected to Proposition 13, which flipped the education finance system from local funding to state-sourced funding. That idea will be picked up in lesson 8.3. The next lesson, however, explores the really bad news: Dollars are only good for what they can buy, and California is an expensive place to run a school.
Education is the largest function of government.
Of course, it's important to acknowledge that most Californians have no idea at all about their state's level of investment in education, either in absolute terms or relative terms. According to an annual survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), only 15% of Californians can correctly identify the biggest slice of the state's budget. Nearly half think that the state spends more on prisons than any other function.
California funding for K-12 education is skimpy, but it is still the largest function of government.
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