California Schools Are Not Paying Up

When it comes to spending, California is not doing well...at least not for its students. According to a recent analysis, spending on a per-student basis in California's public schools is at an all-time low. And some say that things could get even worse. For a state that ranks near the bottom in per-pupil spending, that is bad news indeed.

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A Downward Spiral

Things have been going badly for California school funding for quite some time.

During the 2007-08 academic year, California ranked 23rd in per-student spending; recent data show that the Golden State has fallen to 46th (an Education Week survey ranked it 47th in January 2011). To put it into perspective: in the 2010-11 school year, California spent nearly $3,000 less per student than the rest of the United States.

The problem could conceivably be traced back to state legislation passed more than 30 years ago. Proposition 13, a 1978 state constitutional amendment, limited real estate tax rates and thus reduced the amount of money collected for schools through local funding. As a result, schools in California have grown increasingly dependent on state funding.

However, state budgets have been declining over the past few years in the face of the economic downturn. Since 2007, schools have fallen victim to dwindling resources. In California, more than half of school funds come from state dollars. Basically, when nearly 57% of your revenue comes from a source that has less and less to give, you're in trouble.

A System in Need of an Overhaul

The system by which funding is allocated to California schools has been called 'unconstitutional' by some districts, which have taken the matter to the courts. A similar lawsuit was recently filed by the Campaign for Quality Education, a coalition of local organizations 'committed to educational equality for all communities in California's public schools' according to its website.

The disparity among per-student spending in California school districts comes from different programs that allow more funds to go to some schools than others. As a result, schools that have similar student populations and performance results will receive vastly different funding.

Such is the case with similar Oakland and Moreno Valley Unified School Districts: Oakland spends about $3,000 more per student than Moreno Valley and also receives more in funding for special programs. In addition, Oakland gets $20 million each year from a voter-approved parcel tax.

Middle school math teacher Patricia Sanders says that one district getting more money than another gives the sense that some children are valued over others. Sanders' district, the Alameda Unified School District, is one of nine that filed the funding system lawsuit last year.

Not Getting More For Your Money

Ironically, more money does not necessarily translate into improved learning.

According to California Watch, a group of investigative journalists covering issues in areas such as education and public safety and which conducted the per-student spending analysis in the state, schools spending more sometimes have a lower Academic Performance Index (API) than schools spending much less. API is determined by, among other factors, student test scores and dropout rates.

Urban schools with larger expenses and inefficient spending are seen as two reasons why schools spending more are not producing better academic results. In some cases, funding may be going toward things that do not affect academics, such as security or maintenance.

Perhaps University of California-Berkeley professor W. Norton Grubb said it best when he wrote in his recent book, The Money Myth: 'Money may be necessary for school improvement, but it doesn't guarantee that improvement takes place.'

When you're ranked almost last in per-student spending, improvement is a luxury you may not be afforded; it's likely all you can do to simply maintain the status quo.

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