California’s enormously complicated, and notoriously opaque, school financing system often defies understanding and analysis in ways that are accessible to ordinary Californians.
Despite decades of efforts to equalize spending in California schools, wide gaps still remain, both among districts, and among schools within those districts. To review differences among districts, California Watch closely examined California Department of Education figures for the current expense of education. The data accounts for each student in attendance in the state’s nearly 1,000 school districts in the 2009-10 school year.
As the Department of Education notes, there are a variety of ways to calculate per-pupil spending. “Each has advantages and disadvantages, depending on the intended use of the data,” the department’s website states. “For example, one measure might be useful for comparisons between states, while another measure might be more useful in state budget discussions.”
California Watch relied on the current expense of education figures to compare actual spending by districts. The figures cover annual salaries, employee benefits, books, supplies and other educational services. They exclude costs such as facilities acquisition and construction, retiree benefits, and food services.
Our computer-based analysis used the department’s Base Academic Performance Index data file and data files from the department’s School Fiscal Services Division showing the total expenditures and average daily attendance at every school and district in the state. The API scores used were the 2010 API Growth scores, the results of tests administered to students in spring 2010.
The analysis, done with SPSS statistical software, examined whether there was a significant correlation between per-pupil expenditures and school performance as measured by API scores. The API scores represent the state’s ranking of districts and schools based on tests administered through the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting program and on high school performance on the California High School Exit Examination.
The analysis found there was virtually no correlation between funding and scores that could explain the wide variation across the state in per-pupil spending in districts.
California Watch also looked at correlations between expenditures and student backgrounds, including their race and ethnicity and whether they are poor enough to receive a free or reduced lunch. The analysis also did not find any significant correlations among these variables.
The analysis was conducted by Stephen K. Doig, Knight Chair in Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Doig, who worked at the Miami Herald for 19 years, is a nationally recognized expert on computer-assisted reporting. He is a regular contributor to California Watch.