California Spending and Funding for K-12 Education

California Spending and Funding for K-12 Education


In light of the LA Teacher’s strike, I have been wondering about California’s funding for K-12 education. In the Governor’s Proposed Budget for 2019-20, the Department of Finance (DOF) reports that California will fund K-12 education at a bit over $17,000 per student in the coming fiscal year. DOF points to very steady and very large increases in K-12 funding growing from $47 billion in FY 2011-12 to $80 billion in FY 2019-20.


The California Department of Education reported that in 2016-17, California’s schools spent $11,548 per student, and LAUSD (our local school district) spent $13,452.


Depending on whose report you read, California ranks 22nd, 29th, 41st and 49th in state and local K-12 funding and spending per student for education. And according to one article, they are all correct, and it depends on how you adjust the numbers.


I then went to an old budget wonk friend who referred me to another budget wonk friend who explained and then turned me on to a Department of Education report that helped demystify the education numbers game at least a little. It’s titled “Comparison of Per Pupil Spending Calculations”. At one end of the numbers game spectrum, the K-12 spending calculation includes everything, including the kitchen sink; at the other end, it uses spending figures that could be two to three years out of date and may exclude or include quite a lot of spending categories – like child development, adult education, summer school, before and after school, extended year, state retirement contributions, state schools, state department of education, capital outlays, etc. so each uses a different numerator. Some reports include while others exclude federal school funding. Finally not all the reports use the same figures for average daily attendance (ADA) – the denominator.


Another report indicates that the biggest difference is whether you adjust state education spending for the high cost of living in California.  If you do not adjust for cost of living, California’s K-12 spending rank is now mid range among the states; if you do adjust for our high costs of housing, California’s rankings fall into the 40’s.


Yet another report breaks out the differences between spending on salaries, benefits, administration and other. New York and DC are the top spending states per pupil as well as on their teacher and employee salaries. Those, however, are not the only differences; DC, for example, spends a huge percent on administration, and New York spends a very large percent on benefits and on “other”. Both DC and NY have far smaller shares of their populations as students than do states like California, Texas and Utah, and they have much higher per capita incomes.


California used to rank in the top ten in public education funding and spending before Prop 13. It fell quite a long way down the state rankings, then recovered, then was hard hit again by the Great Recession, then has begun to recover beginning in 2012. 


The state of California Legislative Analyst’s Office has an excellent new report that tells all or at least a lot if you are interested. Our state’s educational demographics are far different than the nation; we have over twice as many Latino (54%) and Asian (11%) students and only 1/3rd as many African American (6%) students. We have nearly three times (21%) as many students who are learning the English language, and 45% of our public school students live in non-English speaking households. A higher percent of our public school parents are college grads (34%), and a higher percent (17%) of our public school parents have less than a high school education. Due to sharply dropping birth rates, our numbers of public school children have been declining since about 2000, and Los Angeles has had one of the steepest declines – 8% or 137,000 students. This decline is expected to continue over the next decade – anticipated 4% decline. The late 70s and 80’s saw a similar decline.


Charter school enrollment has grown from about 0.5% of California public schools students to 10%; it appears that these families are voting with their feet. Contrary to some common myth-making, California’s public charter schools enroll the same percent of low income students (59% vs. 60%) and a higher percent of African American students (8% vs. 5%) than do the traditional public schools. They enroll a smaller percent of Hispanic students (49% vs. 55%) than do the traditional public schools.


In constant dollars, California school funding per student is at an all time high, and California public school funding per student now ranks in the middle of all states. However our public schools are far more heavily reliant on state funding (due to Prop 13), and these state funds roller coaster with the ups and downs of economic recessions and recoveries more than do other states, which depend on local property taxes; that’s why a school district’s reserves are so important. The state of California provides very substantial augmentations to those school districts like LAUSD with a high percent of English language learners and a high percent of low-income residents.


There is one teacher per 21 students and the student-teacher ratio has been declining from about 23/1 in 2011-12 to about 21/1 in 2017-18. California’s student-teacher ratio is much higher than the national average (16/1).


Teacher compensation has been rising in inflation-adjusted dollars by 11% from $83,000 to $92,000 in 2016-17; 2/3rds of the increase has been due to the rising costs of their health benefits; only 1/3rd is an increase in their teacher salaries. The costs of public school teacher pensions through CalSTRS are not included in this calculation. District’s pension costs are projected to reach $9.5 billion in 2020-21 from a level of $3.2 billion in 2013-14.


Well below half of California public school students are meeting state standards in reading and math for their grade level. Students’ math proficiency rates decline the longer children are in school while their reading proficiency rates improve. California has been slowly closing its school achievement gap with the rest of the nation.


There is a very large achievement gap by race; Asian students perform the highest (77% average proficiency); white students are at 60%; Hispanic students are at 39% average proficiency, and African American students at 32%.


Prepared by: Lucien Wulsin

Dated: 2/15/19