Robert Manwaring

Robert Manwaring

Polling data (here for example) consistently shows that K-12 education is Californians’ highest state budget priority. Indeed, Gov. Jerry Brown plans to put those beliefs to the test with a $7 billion tax initiative on the November ballot aimed at resolving the state’s chronic budget problems. This initiative will hold education funding hostage, threatening $5.5 billion in K-12 cuts if voters don’t approve the new taxes.

On top of the Brown tax initiative, Molly Munger’s initiative would provide $10 billion annually in new revenues for schools and preschool/early education programs. So voters will get to weigh in not once, but twice on how strongly they want to protect K-12 education.

While this year’s budget may prioritize K-12 education – on the condition that voters are willing to raise taxes – most past budgets have not. In fact, the budget that Gov. Brown signed last month basically left in place the damage done to school budgets over the last several years, and further back.

Here’s how that damage occurred. California entered the last recession behind most other states in funding, with the research community recommending the need for as much as $15 billion to $20 billion in additional investments. When the recent recession hit, California dramatically cut school spending, relying on one-time federal stimulus funds to partially backfill the cuts. But those federal funds ran out and the state economy hadn’t recovered, so the cuts became permanent. At present, California schools’ general-purpose funding – the revenue limit –  has been cut 22 percent, creating what’s known as the deficit factor. This cut was on top of the level researchers said was $15 billion below adequate. Assuming the governor’s initiative passes, this budget will continue the same low level of programmatic funding. While schools would not see additional revenues in 2012-13 if Brown’s initiative passes, they would see some funding increases starting in 2013-14.

But should the governor’s initiative fail, schools will be decimated – facing $5.5 billion in additional cuts. Part of the cuts would delay the timing of payments to schools, and part would reduce general-purpose funding an additional 7 percent.

How will this play out locally? Some school districts will act conservatively, planning for the worst, and make staffing and budget cuts this summer. Other districts will hope for the best – and only face up to fiscal crisis after the initiative fails. Districts will have one new option: shortening the school year (the budget would allow 20 fewer days) if they can negotiate it with their unions. Expect a lot of management-union strife if the initiative fails. Also, expect some district bankruptcies.

Why Are New Revenues Needed for Schools?

According to the recently released Education Week report Quality Counts, California ranks 47th in per-pupil education funding when funding is adjusted for regional cost. That’s $3,000 below the national average ($8,667 per pupil compared to $11,665) based on 2009 data. This translates to $18 billion below the national average – not an easy gap to close. And since California has seen its per-pupil funding fall since 2009, the funding gap is likely higher.

The consequence of this low funding? Many California districts have already reduced their school year by 5 days. The Golden State has the second-highest classroom sizes in the nation (only Utah has larger) and has among the fewest adults in its schools (teachers, principals, administrators, nurses, librarians), not to mention a record number of districts in financial trouble. And, if the two ballot measures fail, California schools will lose another $441 per pupil.

Unfortunately, You Get What You Pay For. California is one of the lowest-performing states in the country – mired in the bottom five states in math, reading, and science. Thank goodness for Mississippi, or we’d be last in some grades and subjects. Some make excuses, blaming our low performance on the high rate of economically disadvantaged students and English learners in the state. And, certainly, the state’s education system is letting these students down. However, California’s poor performance is systematically hitting middle- and upper-income families’ children as well. For example, the kids of parents who’ve graduated from college rank 37th in science, 38th in math, and 39th in reading. These middle-income parents are the voters that Gov. Brown is hoping will step up to vote for more resources for schools.

Money Alone Isn’t Enough. Research (Getting Down to Facts by Stanford/UC researchers, California’s Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence, RAND, and others) is clear that the system needs many reforms, as well as significant additional resources to accompany those reforms. California needs to overhaul its finance, governance, and accountability systems and make major changes to teacher and administrator policies. On the policy front, there’s a possible compromise brewing. Gov. Brown wants to devolve budget decisions to the local level and overhaul the finance system through weighted student funding. The State Senate leadership wants an accountability system that moves beyond test scores and values college and career readiness. Both parties seem ready to deal. But, with the current level of resources, it’s challenging for policymakers to focus on anything but the budget.

How Did School Funding Get So Bad?

It’s perplexing that school funding in California could be so low compared to the rest of the country given that:

  • Californians make more money. The Golden State currently ranks 9th in the nation in per-capita income.
  • Californians pay higher taxes. Of the income Californians make, a higher proportion of it is spent on state and local government – 10.6 percent of personal income is paid in state and local taxes (6th highest in the nation).
  • K-12 education is California’s largest budget item. In California’s 2011-12 budget, K-12 education amounted to just over 34 percent of state expenditures – the largest funding category.

So how can California’s income and taxes be high, yet K-12 spending be so far below the rest of the country?

The answer is a combination of demographics and priorities. First, California is a relatively young state – and, as such, has a higher portion of its population in the K-12 age range (ages 5-18) compared to other states. Since the state has more kids per capita, the tax revenues don’t go as far as they would in a state with a smaller portion of the population in school. There’s not much that the state can do to change this factor.

Second, through several state ballot measures and laws, California policymakers and voters have chosen to prioritize other parts of state and local government above K-12 education. For example, California is the second-highest state in per-capita spending for its corrections system and also second highest for police and fire. If, for example, California moved down to the national average in spending per capita for these two areas of state and local government, it would free up $11 billion that could be redirected to K-12 schools. California also ranks near the top in many areas of social service and health spending.

The governor’s recent realignment effort (transferring inmates from expensive state prisons to local county jails) is a step in the right direction of generating correction savings. Still, there’s a lot more that the state could do – and the education community should play a role in helping state and local policymakers and voters see the need for constraints in spending in other areas. There are several issues where decisions that are made this year will significantly affect whether more resources will be available for education in the future – even if the issues seem somewhat unrelated. For example, decisions made about high-speed rail, redevelopment agencies, “three strikes” sentencing reforms, and pension reforms all will have a significant impact on the future of education funding.

While state and local government is not a zero sum game (as the governor’s and other initiative proposals show), there is a need for spending constraint in other areas of the budget – if California is once again going to prioritize its schools like voters say they want.

An earlier version of this post was posted on the new Hoover Institute California politics blog, Eureka.

Robert Manwaring is an independent fiscal and policy consultant. Prior to becoming an independent consultant, Mr. Manwaring was a Senior Policy Analyst for Education Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based education policy think tank; the Director of Policy for the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence; the lead author of Every Child Prepared, Technical Report; and the K-12 Education Director for the California Legislative Analyst’s Office.


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  1. Paul says:

    To generalize Mike McMahon’s comment about a “disconnect”, the simple answer is that Californians care about public education, but not enough to be willing to pay for it.

    Education always ranks as a top concern in polls, and exceptional / reactive funding efforts (or politicians who support such efforts) sometimes do succeed at the polls. But the electoral record reveals that support for stable and high K-14 education funding had vanished by the 1980s.

  2. Sonja Luchini says:

    Our Special Education Community Advisory Committee for LAUSD went to Sacramento in early May, before the final budget decisions. We asked point-blank: “Do you consider educational funding a priority” and received resounding “yes” answers. Then when asked why per-prisoner funding was over $40,000 (with $15,000 just for health care) compared to $8000 per pupil funding, we received waffling answers. Oone even mentioned the prison consent decree and our reply was that LAUSD was under a federal consent decree to provide better special education services, yet did not have the monetary backing that the prison mandate receives. I joked that we should just send kids straight to prison and bypass the K-12 system entirely…at least they’d get health care….

    Our students and parents do not have the lobbying clout that prison guards and charter foundations bring to Sacramento. There are many, many families who want to see public education funding provided fairly and see charters manipulating the system, practicing exclusive and discriminatory enrollment of moderate/severely disabled, Foster Youth and English Language Learners. Cherry-picking students that will give the appearance of high test scores while sucking needed special education funding away from regular public schools that’s attached to individual ADA per pupil.

    Money = attention in Sacramento. Until that changes, our children suffer…and they can’t have a “do-over”. They only have one shot at an education. We’ve got politicians and businessmen creating education policy while ignoring the input of educators and administrators who understand child development, educational growth and proven educational practices that work in favor of “quick fix” alternatives that send more money to their cronies and the businesses that support them.

    It hasn’t been about children for a long, long time….

  3. Mike McMahon says:

    A simpler and easier explanation is that disconnecting prioritizing school expenditures at a local level from local revenue generation when Prop 13 became a statewide property tax is the main reason for the decline in CA public education spending. Of course if we went back to local communities deciding how much to tax and spend on schools we would be faced with issues raised in the Serrano v Priest decision.