Trying to Fix California’s Education Funding

Californians, after decades of strange tax polices and increasing expenses, had realized that the state’s funding formula for public schools was too difficult and too low.

Many states across the country have made similar determinations. Since public schools are funded by local property taxes, and the value of property is higher where rich people live than where the poor live, the essential discrepancy shows up everywhere. But California had an interesting idea about how to address this.

According to an article at Education Week:

Aiming to fund its schools more efficiently and effectively, California has chosen an unusual, lead-from-behind approach that provides more state money to districts, but pushes communities to hold their local schools accountable for how that aid is used and for student performance.

How this looks in practice varies widely, as districts throughout California put the state’s Local Control Funding Formula and new, locally driven accountability plans into full effect this school year.

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This sounds sensible, since it arguably gives local schools freedom to make the reforms they deem necessary, but also holds schools accountable for bad decision-making, and should promote effective changes. But the reality is a little complicated.

According to the article, the problem is that it’s still just not much money.

The new formula will eventually give schools more state money—per-student allocation will increase until the 2020-21 school year—but this comes after dramatic cuts in state aid from the financial meltdown in the last decade. Many schools already had reforms in place that appeared to be working, back in 2006 or so, and then had to put those reforms on hold just to keep enough money to continue basic operations.

Base funding will rise to $6,845 for students in grades K-3, $6,947 for students in grades 4-6, and $7,154 for students in grades 7-8. Base funding for high school students will increase to $8,289. This increase is paid for by a tax increase approved by voters in 2012. This will replace the state’s current complicated 1970s-era funding formula. The average current base-level state funding is about $5,200 per elementary school pupil and $6,100 per high school pupil.

Total average per pupil spending in California, including the base formula above, additional aid, and money provided by local property taxes, was $8,341 in 2010-11. That’s among the lowest in the nation. The average per-pupil funding across the country is $11,864.

But because it will take a few years to built the money back, but districts will be accountable for higher performance immediately, it’s not clear the accountably standards will really do a good job targeting the areas where schools need to improve.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer