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Lesson 8.7

School Funding:
How Money Reaches the Classroom

How is money actually allocated to schools? Is it equitable?

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Does your school district office seem powerful? It might be because they are the ones cutting the checks.

The responsibility for managing and disbursing funds for everything from paychecks to school supplies lies in the hands of the school district. (Well, technically, money flows through "Local Education Agencies" (LEAs), but most LEAs are school districts. Charter schools and county offices of education also fall into the "LEA" category. So now you know.)

The District Budget Process

As explained in Lesson 8.3, California school districts depend on the state for most of their annual revenues. The state budget determines the amount of money that will be allocated toward education. That amount is apportioned to school districts through the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) described in Lesson 8.5. State leaders have until June 30 each year to decide on a state budget.

Funny thing about that June 30 deadline. By law, school districts also have to adopt a final budget at the end of June for their coming school and fiscal year, which starts the next day, on July 1. If it seems like school district leaders are obsessively reading tea leaves in June, it's because they are. District officials use informed estimates and assumptions to create their annual budgets. The planning typically starts in earnest by January, but budget planning and management are year-round concerns in most school districts. The budgeting process for charter schools is somewhat different, because charter schools must budget for facilities costs.

Districts differ in their approach to public input about the budget. Some districts try to keep the information quiet. Others do all they can to present the information clearly and let the public know when feedback will be most helpful. Common to all districts is the legal obligation to present budget information at public school board meetings. The parent leaders who really understand their school district budgets are generally those who make a point of attending board meetings regularly and who aren’t shy about asking for clarification from district business officials or the superintendent’s office when necessary.

Who Controls the Money?

School districts, in turn, manage local schools. In the majority of California districts, the central office makes the big decisions about how schools and classrooms will operate, including a great deal about how they use resources. That can include everything from the school calendar to the number of students per classroom to where to purchase supplies to how many custodians are needed.

Good Intentions
Districts get money for kids who are poor /
or speak only limited English. /
But does that money carry through /
after the budget is finished?

Most California schools have a site budget. The school principal controls it, often with the help of a site council or similar group that includes parents and school staff. Site budgets usually cover only non-staff costs because staffing decisions are made by the district.

Getting Real About Salary Expenses

In the 2018-19 school year, for the first time California school districts were required to account for the money actually spent in each school. It may seem odd, but prior to that year both federal and state law permitted school districts to avoid school-based accounting. Most California school districts avoided disclosing differences in actual school-level spending by using district-wide average salary costs — effectively pretending that all teachers were paid the same. They aren't. In many districts the least experienced (and least expensive) teachers tend to work in the schools with the highest levels of poverty.

Under ESSA, the Federal education law updated at the end of the Obama administration, school districts are obligated to disclose actual expenditures at the individual school level. This was an essential change, especially in the context of the Local Control Funding Formula, which directs additional resources to school districts with high levels of poverty or high concentrations of English Learners.

Beginning in 2018-19, California districts are required to disclose actual staff costs at the site level.

This change took many years to accomplish. In 2006, The Education Trust-West pursued a groundbreaking analysis of the effect of teacher seniority on the distribution of actual resources in schools. The findings of its original study, The Hidden Gap, highlighted the likelihood that high-poverty schools are disproportionately staffed with inexperienced teachers. This analysis drove some interest in transparency. Districts were required to include actual salary costs in their School Accountability Report Cards (SARC), a public document that is required for each school each year. Many districts ignored the requirement, reporting every school as having the average teacher salary. Data from SARCs are not systematically collected or summarized in a manner that permits analysis.

The changes in accounting required by ESSA harmonize well with the intent of California's Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF): direct more funds toward the education of students with greater needs. However, California has been slow to implement policies for school-level transparency.

The implementation of LCFF was a major subject of study in the 2018 Getting Down to Facts II (GDTFII) project. Policies related to school-level transparency about actual education spending have faced potent opposition, including from former Governor Jerry Brown. If enforced, ESSA-compliant school site accounting should make inequality in school-level spending easier to detect and remedy, but it might also make budgeting even more difficult than it already is.

School Budgets

Most of the time, school-related spending is actually carried out by the school district. However, many districts have at least experimented with giving school principals increased control over spending decisions. Site-based budgeting is not as easy as it might sound, though. Most schools are larger than a small business, and school districts are big organizations. Not all principals are equally good at budgeting, or for that matter at spending. Finding a practical and effective balance between school-based insights, multi-school programs and district-level fiscal control is tough work. In 2018 GDTFII examined the critical role of operations in school districts. It requires good processes, effective accounting and strong communication.

Updated August 2017, November 2018


Under LCFF, school districts control the allocation of funds to schools. The largest use of funds in education is for staff salaries and benefits, which can vary greatly with staff seniority. One report is designed to provide transparency to how much money is actually spent at each school site. Which one is it?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Esmeralda Munoz April 13, 2020 at 10:41 pm
Love this! Thank you!
user avatar
Brandi Galasso October 8, 2015 at 10:29 am
Does any one know how much per student our schools should recieve. If district recieves $9000 per student how much does school get per student? Because district doesnt actually say.
user avatar
Steven N October 1, 2015 at 12:25 pm
The SARC (School Accountability Report Card) are required by the State, are posted by the State and districts. They contain the average teacher salary At A School, in relation to the average at a district. Although the comparisons disrict-to-district are invalid (TCOE Total Cost Of Employment is better): I find the school-to-school comparisons very useful myself.
My District is now submitting and posting these locally on the proper schedule (January of every year). Yeah our District Office (Karen R. and Cathy B.)!
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