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Spending far from equal among state’s school districts, analysis finds

Logan Salcido shows parents Katie and Bernardo his work during an open house at Veterans Elementary School in Bakersfield.Casey Christie/Bakersfield CalifornianLogan Salcido shows parents Katie and Bernardo his work during an open house at Veterans Elementary School in Bakersfield.

State lawmakers have struggled for decades to bring equality to how school districts are funded, yet some districts receive thousands more per student than others, a California Watch analysis has found. And the data shows spending more provides no assurance of academic success. 

Last year, California schools spent an average of $8,452 to educate each student, a figure that includes money from local, state, and federal sources, including one-time stimulus funds. 

But that average masks enormous differences in spending. The Carmel Unified School District, for example, spent nearly three times as much as the Norris School District in Bakersfield. One tiny district, the Pacific Unified School District on a remote stretch of the California coast near Hearst Castle, spent close to $60,000 per student. 

Figures are typically available only for how much districts, not individual schools, spend on their students. But according to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, some of the smallest schools in the Sierra foothills, with just a handful of students, received about $200,000 per student.

Public schools consume the largest share of the state’s shrinking general fund – 42 percent of the $86 billion total. How those funds are allocated is coming under increasing scrutiny by education leaders, advocacy groups, school districts and lawmakers. 

In April, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, introduced legislation to reform education financing. Similar to a plan proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown during his gubernatorial campaign, the bill would simplify funding formulas and direct money to students with extra needs, such as those from low-income families.

“We talk a lot about the achievement gap, but there is also a parallel financial gap,” Brownley said. Unless the system is reformed, she said, “we will continue to have this disparity and this divide.”

As districts struggle to cope with massive budget cuts, an extra few hundred dollars per student can make a significant difference. In a school district like Los Angeles Unified, by far the largest in the state, $500 more per student would yield about an extra $300 million, precisely the amount the district aimed to save when it sent out thousands of layoff notices this spring. 

More money, however, does not necessarily translate into better learning. California Watch’s analysis shows there is no substantial correlation between how much a school district spends and its Academic Performance Index, which is based on student test scores and other academic measures. 

The Capistrano Unified School District, for example, spent much less than the San Bernardino City Unified School District. Yet its API score was 862, compared with San Bernardino’s 699.

The disconnect between money and academic performance is at the heart of an ongoing debate among educators and researchers. 

“Money may be necessary for school improvement, but it doesn’t guarantee that improvement takes place,” concluded UC Berkeley education professor W. Norton Grubb in his recent book “The Money Myth,” after conducting an intensive review on the subject. 

In particular, he found that urban schools tended to spend inefficiently for a variety of reasons, including high staff and student turnover and conflicts over how to teach struggling students. At the same time, he said, urban districts often have extra expenses for needs such as security, dropout prevention, or for teaching students who are not proficient in English. 

Deanne Fitzmaurice/California WatchTeacher Mellissa Schmitz high-fives a student at Costano Elementary School in Ravenswood City School District, East Palo Alto.

One of those districts with higher expenses is the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto, where about two-thirds of students are English learners. The district has had to hire three full-time Spanish translators – mainly to translate lengthy special education reports as required by law – and has translators working in the school office, in classrooms and at parent meetings.

Ravenswood spends nearly $13,000 per student, yet has cut several programs and may slash two weeks from the next school year, said Superintendent Maria De La Vega. 

“It is sad, when you look across the freeway, and see so many other opportunities (for students there),” she said, referring to the Palo Alto Unified School District, in a wealthier community on the other side of Highway 101. “I wish I could do better for our students, but the budget keeps getting worse.” 

California Watch’s analysis is based on the state’s current expense of education per student, which includes annual salaries, employee benefits, books, supplies and other educational services. It doesn’t include costs for building purchases, construction, retiree benefits and food services.

Many teachers have given up on official funding sources and are spending their own money for classroom supplies. Cheryl Longo, a special education teacher at Canyon Springs High School in the Moreno Valley Unified School District, east of Riverside, estimates that she spent about $800 this year on books, paper, pens and other supplies, including 3-D glasses for an online tour of national parks. 

The $100 she got for supplies from her school principal at the beginning of the year was quickly spent on two ink cartridges for her classroom printers. “Thank God for 99-cent stores, Goodwill and yard sales,” she said.

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Longo has not had a new desk or chair since 1987 – the year her school was built. The rickety desk she has now is propped up with bricks. “If I want a new desk or new chair, I will have to buy one myself,” said Longo, who has spent three decades in the classroom. 

Seeking legal solutions

Last year, financial frustration prompted nine districts, including the Alameda Unified School District, and several dozen parents and students to file a lawsuit claiming the funding system is unconstitutional. The suit, Robles-Wong v. California, is being heard in Alameda County Superior Court along with another suit by the Campaign for Quality Education, which makes similar allegations. 

“We are not asking for simply more money,” the Campaign for Quality Education suit contends. “We’re asking for fundamental reform so that existing and additional funds will be more efficiently spent.” 

What especially galls education leaders in Alameda is that its district receives substantially less money than nearby districts like Berkeley, Oakland and Palo Alto. 

“There is a huge sense that the system is very inequitable in how it operates,” said Patricia Sanders, a middle school math teacher who is also president of the Alameda Education Association, the district’s teachers union. “For us not to receive the same amount as other districts near us is like saying, ‘We are going to value one child more than another.’ ”

The experience of the Norris School District in Bakersfield, with four elementary schools and one middle school, illustrates many of the contradictions of California’s school financing system. 

The district, which draws its students from suburban tracts that have sprouted amid alfalfa fields and almond groves on Bakersfield’s outskirts, is the state’s seventh-lowest spending district. Yet the Norris district has achieved a score of 841 on the state’s Academic Performance Index, well above the state’s goal of 800 and far higher than many districts that spend much more. Every school has fully staffed libraries, music and arts programs, well-maintained buildings, and almost no teacher turnover.

Norris’ superintendent, Wallace McCormick, said his district buys only essential instructional materials. It pays principals and staff slightly less than surrounding districts and has maintained a healthy reserve budget. 

The district has benefited from rising student enrollments in recent years, which brought in more state funding for each child in attendance. The district also erected new buildings in the last decade, lowering its maintenance costs.

Most importantly, he said, “we have learned to live within our means.” 

Yet McCormick said his district will run out of funds if state budget cuts continue. This year, he was able to avert fiscal disaster by using $1.5 million in one-time federal stimulus funding. The district increased class sizes and spent a third of its $6 million reserve. Unlike many districts, Norris averted layoffs and unpaid furlough days. 

“My funding model is that we want to be the last lemming over the cliff,” McCormick said. 

Norris, however, shouldn’t be seen as a model for doing more with less, he says. The district is solidly middle class, he says, and spends less than districts with large numbers of poor students or English language learners with more costly needs. 

But even among those districts with more expenses, disparities exist. 

Disparities in targeted funds

Oakland and Moreno Valley have a similar number of students, and both have diverse student bodies. In each district, nearly three-fourths of the students are poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced-cost lunch. The districts’ test scores are similar. 

Yet last year, Oakland spent about $3,000 more per student. It gets nearly twice as much as Moreno Valley in targeted funds for dropout prevention, school safety and other special programs. It also gets nearly twice as much in federal funds intended for poor children, and it received more stimulus funds. On top of that, Oakland receives about $20 million each year from a parcel tax approved by local voters. 

These accumulated differences were not anticipated when four decades ago, the California Supreme Court declared the state’s system of financing schools unconstitutional. In the landmark 1971 Serrano v. Priest ruling, the court found that using local property taxes to fund schools resulted in vast differences between a wealthy district like Beverly Hills and Baldwin Park, a low-income community east of Los Angeles.

The Supreme Court ruled that differences in the basic amount spent per student – so-called “revenue limit” funding – had to be within $100 across all districts. Taking inflation into account, the permissible difference is now $350 per student. Although larger differences remain among some districts, disparities in the basic amount districts receive from the state have been substantially reduced.

But that reduction has been wiped out by local, state and federal funds for close to a hundred different programs. A large part of the money is based on formulas established in the 1970s for meals, transportation and other services that often have little connection to current student needs. 

The inequities the court sought to alleviate with its Serrano ruling persist. About two-thirds of districts now spend at least $500 above or below the state average, according to California Watch’s analysis. 

“What happened since the Serrano case is that we tried to equalize base funding for students across the state,” said Brownley, the Santa Monica assemblywoman. “But since then, we have instituted hundreds of different categorical funds that added to the base. That has taken it to another level and skewed spending again.

This story was edited by Denise Zapata and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Filed under: K–12


Comments are closed for this story.
hankmeister's picture
There are TEN (10) elementary districts in what could reasonably be called Bakersfield and one high school district that they all feed in to. The Norris, Fruitvale & Rosedale elementary districts are all really good examples of socio-economic segregation and the educational apartheid that takes place with the current system of allowing elementary and high school districts to exist totally separately. A really telling comparison would have been to compare Norris (or Rosedale or Fruitvale) to say Beardsley or Standard districts a mile and 3.5 miles away that feed kids literally in to the same high school and the API scores are much lower with more money.
Pat Hudson's picture
I shake my head when I read these type of stories. First you create a sexy headline to attract readers. Then you cite an author who titles his book with a sexy title about money and education. Yet if you read the book that is not main subject covered in the book. Then you cite outlier examples to bolster your case that there are disparities in how much districts spend on average per student. Then you do your best to point what everyone already knows: there is never a strong correlation of any ONE INPUT VARIABLE and something as complex as educational outcomes. It reminds me of all of the stories that make the press linking xxx with cancer or heart attacks, with cell phones being the latest example. AB18 that just passed the Assembly maybe the first step in changing the funding of California schools.
MorelandDrive's picture
It is utterly reprehensible that the taxpayers of Alameda have had to pay a parcel tax of over $600 per home, simply because the California State Legislature funds Alameda at a lower rate per student that Palo Alto, Berkeley, Oakland, and Pleasanton. How many lawsuits do we have to file in order to make the legislature do its fundamental job? Their only excuse for this atrocious behavior is that it is politically difficult for them to reduce funding to the districts which receive more than their fair share. "Gee, sorry, we have to STEAL from you because it's easier than distributing these funds equally."
Sonja L's picture
Special Education expenses are not even touched here. I'm the former Chair and 10 year member of the Special Education Community Advisory Committee for LAUSD - a state and federally mandated committee that advises on special education service provision. We have over 82,000+ students with IEPs (Individual Education Plans). Special Education has never been fully funded from the federal level – ever. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) promised "up to 40% of the funding over 25 years ago and only with the one-time infusion of ARRA Stimulus funds recently did we get close to 25% funding. Typically it's been 13 to 17% since its inception. LAUSD has historically borrowed from the general fund to compensate for this lack of support (nearly 50% as a rough approximation) because IEPs are legal documents and The District is required by law to provide needed services. What’s even more criminal is the stipulation attached to ARRA funding for IDEA that allowed school districts who were “compliant” with the law to take 50% of that funding from the top for their general fund. LAUSD is hardly “compliant”, yet managed to steal from our students who are in most need. This stipulation was not included with the Title I ARRA funding, only for special education. Because every student's ADA (Average Daily Attendance) funding contains a small percentage specifically for special education - we're now seeing a drain of resources to Charter schools who do not take the moderate to severely disabled. LAUSD is required to provide service for those particular students not "chosen" for charters who are never enrolled (or had been enrolled at the beginning of the year but removed come "norming day in Oct.). Due to the block grand funding model, charters receive all funding at the beginning of the year based on opening day enrollment. If they chose to "remove" a student with an IEP after norming day - they still keep the funding throughout the year . This has never made sense to me. As the students "removed" from charters return to LAUSD (or are placed in more expensive nonpublic placement at the District's expense), there are fewer special education dollars to provide services for those returning students. As a Special Education Local Planning Area or SELPA, LAUSD has a pot of special education funding to distribute throughout the district on an as-needed basis per IEPs. Charter schools take all the special education ADA funding attached to each child, but do not necessarily use it for those specific services - as a charter it can be dumped into their general fund. I've collected data for many years on the lack of enrollment of moderate to severely disabled students in LAUSD charters and the lack of services these schools provide to those they do take (the 'easy' ones with speech impairment or slight processing issues). Until the funding model for special education changes to follow the student who needs it - we will watch as charters suck public money intended for those students away while LAUSD continues to borrow more and more from the general fund to provide required services for more and more moderate to severely disabled students with fewer available dollars. Charters in wealthier neighborhoods have booster clubs that can raise up to $200,000 a year to supplement their needs (this based on one local elementary school I'm aware of). Charters are required by law to share in "best practices", but how can a wealthy neighborhood's ability to raise $200,000 be considered a "best practice" in teaching? This cannot be translated to a Title I school with 90% of the student population in the free or reduced lunch program. Individual schools in well-off neighborhoods do have an advantage with more stay-at-home parents/family members who are more able to invest in the educational needs of a student at home. Children of poverty who live in economically impacted areas do not have a safe haven, access to health care, parents with living-wage jobs or food in their bellies so they are able to come to school ready-to-learn. There are "haves" and "have nots" in public education. The current environment to punish or close/restructure these poorer schools is yet another power grab by Charter business entities who do not care about our children with special needs enough to enroll them at the same percentages as their neighboring regular public schools. It's a mess and I don't know how to start cleaning this up. Eliminating the test requirements & punitive repercussions for "Program Improvement" schools as stated in NCLB is just a beginning. Get legislators out of child development /curriculum/academic planning and let those who understand these things create the plans and laws. To make laws based on your brother's business model (Neil Bush's test-taking industry for NCLB) is not how our government helps children learn.

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