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Lesson 8.2

Education Dollars:
What They Buy

If you compare school budgets, don’t forget to compare this…

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As discussed in the previous lesson, California is a chronically skimpy spender on public education.

This is bad news for California students, especially because California is an unusually expensive state in which to run a school. Most of the costs of a school are "people" costs. Salaries in California are higher than in other states, and that means California school districts can afford fewer of the things that make up a school — such as teachers, school leaders, counselors, aides, and support staff.

Most spending is for instruction Source: LAO. Click image for the full report.
Context Matters A dollar’s a dollar, some folks tell ya / As if it were really true / But teachers cost more in California / Than teachers in Texas do.

Because California is a high-wage, high-cost-of-living state, education dollars don’t go as far here as they do in Texas or Florida, which fund students at a level roughly comparable to California. Other high-wage, high-cost states such as New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts invest considerably more per student than California does. There are different ways of ranking the states in terms of the dollars they invest in education, as discussed in Lesson 8.1. From the perspective of students, the rankings that matter are those that compare purchasing power. From that perspective, California's schools are very lean. This is a high-cost state with low funding per student.

The student-teacher ratio in California is much higher than in the rest of the US

Fewer Adults

The math is unavoidable. Higher salaries and less money to pay for them means California children have fewer adults involved in their education. In January 2017, the California Budget and Policy Center explained the impact in a data-rich Fact Sheet: As usual, California ranked last in the nation in the number of K-12 students per teacher in 2015-16. California’s student-to-teacher ratio was greater than 22-to-1, a massive 40% higher than the national ratio of 15.5 students per teacher. National figures are strongly influenced by California, which educates about an eighth of America's students. The ratio in the US excluding California is about 14.8 students per teacher.

It's not just about teacher ratios, either. California compares unfavorably with other states in terms of the presence of adult professionals, period. Until 2012, a national survey compared the states in terms of students per counselor and students per librarian. On the last such count, California ranked last — the survey has since been discontinued.

Too much bureaucracy? Actually, California has significantly fewer administrators per student than average.

Skeptics sometimes accuse California of frittering money away on bureaucracy. While there is always room to be smarter, it's important to know that on the basic numbers it does not appear the state suffers from a surplus of administration. The state has significantly fewer administrators per student than average. In fact, one theme of the Getting Down to Facts II studies is that teachers and leaders lack the support they need to be effective and persist in their difficult work.

Comparing resources in schools (Based on California Budget and Policy Center Estimates for 2015-16 or *2012-13)

  California Rest of USA California rank
Students per teacher 22.1 14.8 Worst in USA
Students per counselor* 790 414 Worst in USA
Students per librarian* 7,834 851 Worst in USA
Students per administrator* (school site and district admin) 315 192 47th in USA

More People, More Cost, More Adequate

In many states, courts have become involved in the question of what constitutes an "adequate" public education. These cases, generally known as "adequacy" litigation, have led to increased spending in some states, but California's courts declined to follow their lead. But the question is meaningful, anyway. What resources do schools actually need in order to provide students with an adequate basic level of education?

The 2018 report What Does It Cost to Educate California’s Students takes a bottom-up approach, following the example of litigation in other states. The study, part of the "Getting Down to Facts II" project, consulted multiple expert panels to estimate how many more people and services it would it take for California to deliver all students an adequate education. Below is a summary of the findings for middle school, showing higher costs for schools with students with higher needs.

Comparison of Middle School Adequacy Projected Costs by Cost Component, from Exhibit 3-3 of 'What Does It Cost to Educate California's Students?'. Source: AIR calculations based on PJP resource specifications.

In the chart above, the stacked bar on the left represents adequate funding per average pupil for a basic middle school based on the panels' findings — about $13,000. But in schools where there is a concentration of poverty or students learning English, additional supports are needed, and the cost to provide a basic adequate education is higher.

Here is what the experts recommended for adequate staff and services:

Core Instruction

Seven periods a day AND two periods for planning and collaboration among teachers.

An average class size of 22 students for the core subjects (i.e., English language arts, Math, and Science). This excludes resource teachers or teachers supporting special education and English learner students. Once these additional instructors are considered the estimated pupil–teacher ratio is 15:1.

Special Populations

One or two English language specialists, as well as two educational assistants to support new students who are classified as ELs.

Small caseloads for special education staff: up to 7 students with high-severity disabilities per educational specialist, and 17 students with low-severity disabilities per educational specialist.

Student and Other Support

About 10 more instructional and pupil support staff for a typical middle school with 609 students.

Professional development opportunities for staff, including in-house programs as well as funds for teachers to attend conferences.

Extended Day and Year

Smaller class sizes in the extended time programs (compared to the core program class sizes), reducing the pupil–teacher ratio from 30:1 to 18:1.

All students with severe disabilities enrolled in special education to attend summer school.

On top of the ongoing requirements above, California's school system is also saddled with large and rising costs related to teacher pension obligations. These are discussed in Lesson 3.11.

Parent groups, local education foundations, and philanthropists in California try valiantly to support their schools with fundraising of many types. But they cannot plug an operating gap of this magnitude.

The next two lessons explain the sources of school funding in California and how the state got into its current situation.

Updated August 2017, March 2018, November 2018, October 2019.


California has the highest student/teacher ratio of any state in America. There are many reasons. Which of the following explanations is NOT true?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Vik November 5, 2017 at 11:13 pm
This is an injustice to our future generations.
user avatar
Elizabeth Perkins October 27, 2017 at 5:06 pm
24 - 26 in K-2, 30 in 3, 4, 5
user avatar
Caryn-C September 11, 2017 at 11:33 am
Honestly, I found these statistics horrifying. 22.1 students to each teacher? That went away years ago. At our K-8, the numbers are much closer to 30+.

It is interesting to view the issue in terms of California being a high wage, high cost of living state. Well, so is New York and they are investing almost double in their students? Pretty embarrassing.
user avatar
Esmeralda Munoz April 29, 2020 at 1:36 pm
True! I hate when they say 22 students to 1 teacher. Big fat lie!
user avatar
ed August 27, 2016 at 11:51 pm
A new mantra for California:
Making better with less
user avatar
Brandi Galasso May 2, 2015 at 4:15 pm
The students need more people to directly effect and help them learn and experience. Not people paid to keep saying what they need instead of doing what they need.
user avatar
Tay Fe April 24, 2015 at 9:54 am
California public schools need to return to 20 to 1 in elementary and have smaller class sizes in 7 to 12.
user avatar
Veli Waller April 10, 2015 at 8:22 pm
Our elementary school of over 800 students just got a counselor - 2 days a week. Nice to see something positive like this. The graphs and statistics in this lesson are horrifying. California last in the country in all of these key areas.
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