8.1 Yes, California Skimps on Schools
Education funding comparisons are notoriously slippery. 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 educating students. In 2009-10, for example, public K-12 education spending in the rest of America (exclusive of California) averaged close to $10,796 per student. In California, the average was lower: $8,520. If this is news to you, you are in good company: most Californians have no idea. According to a 2011 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; 25 percent say it is near the top or above average and 27 percent say it is average.”
A word here about statistics. Public statistics about education spending are collected with a frustrating amount of delay. They vary according to the accounting rules used to calculate them, which can produce flawed comparisons on the margin. But regardless of the source, the accounting approach and the year, California consistently and significantly lags other states in the real resources that it commits to educate children. The gap is huge, persistent, and not at all subject to debate. It is impossible to argue away.
How can this be? Isn’t California a high-tax state?
The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) explains this paradox well. In an analysis of 1999-2000 spending on public education, PPIC found that California generated 9% more state and local tax revenue per capita than other states did. But they also found that this state devoted less of its resources toward public education (22% vs. 25% in the rest of the USA). Further, California had 8% more public school students per capita than the average of the rest of the US.
In other words, California has more students than the rest of the US, and puts less of its taxes toward schools.
Perhaps most important of all is California’s wage context. As a high-wage, high-cost-of-living state, education dollars in California don’t go as far as they do in Ohio, Texas, or Florida, all of which fund students at a level roughly comparable to California in nominal dollars. Other high-wage states such as New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts invest considerably more dollars per student than does California.
There is no escaping the pinch: Below-average spending per student, combined with high wages, results in real investment gaps. Even before the budget crunch of 2011, California routinely ranked last or next-to-last in the nation in terms of teachers per student, librarians per student, counselors per student, and administrators per student. Overall, California schools entered the budget crunch already making do with 30% fewer adults per student than schools have in the rest of the US. Prior to the crunch, schools in California already made do with 21 students per teacher, vs. 15 per teacher in the rest of the US. On a per-student basis, California schools have about a third fewer principals and vice principals, half the number of counselors, and 69% fewer district staff.
Philanthropy cannot plug an operating gap of this magnitude. Nationally, donations to schools and to education-related non-profit organizations add up to less than 1% of educational spending. Even in the wealthiest suburban communities, donations and fundraising only account for 5-10% of school budgets.