Credit: Alison Yin / EdSource

California lags behind 40 other states in the amount it spends per child for a range of services including public education and healthcare, according to a new report.

But aside from education spending, where California has for years spent less than other states, the state spends more than most others on other child-related services and supports, such as health care, child care, tax credits and maternal support that benefits children.

California was the 12th-highest-spending state on health care for children, and seventh in spending on “income supports and social services.”

The Urban Institute, a Washington D.C.-based research and policy organization, found that California spent just over $6,600 for every child under 19 years old for education, health care and social services in 2013 – the most recent year that researchers said data are available on state and local spending for all 50 states. The national average was just over $7,920, according to the report.

The report, “Unequal Playing Field? State Differences in Spending on Children in 2013,” excluded federal contributions to schools and other programs that rely on federal dollars, such as Medicaid.

To arrive at its findings, the report pulled data ranging from 2012 to 2014.

These figures come with other limitations. Some state programs were excluded because of the way those records are kept. Also, California voters have approved significant increases in education funding since 2013. And because of the state’s economic recovery after the Great Recession, California is spending far more on education now than it was in 2012-13. As a result, California’s ranking compared to other states may have improved since then.

The $6,600 figure for California is substantially lower than other estimates of how much the state spends on education alone. That’s in part because the report adjusted state spending levels to reflect cost-of-living differences. Furthermore, as EdSource previously reported, the amount the state spends depends on the method used to calculate that amount. So, for example, EdWeek’s Quality Counts estimated that California spent an average of $8,694 per student in 2013-14. That contrasted with an estimate from the California Budget and Policy Center of $10,291 in the 2015-16 fiscal year. 

According to the Urban Institute’s calculations, Vermont led all states with $13,430 in spending per child on numerous services, including public schools. California’s neighbors also were also on the lower end of the rankings. Oregon spent $7,100, Nevada $6,110 and Arizona $4,890.

The report notes that as the child population grows, states will have to spend more on their children. Thirty-five states are expected to see their populations grow. If they were to maintain their per-child spending at 2013 levels, those states would need to dedicate an additional $24.4 billion for children by 2030. (California’s projected child population growth is 1 percent between now and 2030, the report says).

Unlike other taxpayer-financed programs, education is largely a state and local expense, and on average public schools receive less than 10 percent of their financial support from the federal government. By contrast, more than 60 percent of health spending on children comes from federal sources. California spends far less on education than most other states, and that accounts largely for its lowly position in the per-child spending rankings.

In contrast to education spending, California is an above-average spender on children’s health: $845 per child versus the national average of $709. California is also seventh in child-based income support and social service programs such as tax credits for low-income families and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – spending $399 per child. The national average was $265.

Nationally, state spending on these services reveal certain patterns, explained Julia B. Isaacs, the report’s lead author, in an interview with EdSource.

Most states in the Northeast contributed more than $10,000 per child. States in the South and West, including California, tend to spend below $7,000 per child. It’s also the case that Southern and Western states have the most Latino and Native American students, Isaacs noted.

Forty-seven percent of Latinos live in what the report calls “low-spending states.”

“In contrast, only 28 percent of non-Latino white children and 30 percent of black children live in states that spend less than $7,000 per child,” the report added.

Isaacs said that the difference in racial composition between older and younger generations may play a role in some of the lower spending in states with large percentages of non-white children. When the “voting population is more white and [more of] the children are children of color, that may contribute to some of the spending differences we’re seeing,” she said.

She said the report also highlighted the difference in spending on programs for seniors like Social Security and Medicare, and spending on programs for children.

“We take for granted that if you’re a senior citizen, whether you live in Arizona or New York, it’s the same minimum retirement benefit,” Isaacs said in describing Social Security and Medicare. “It seems a little bit odd to give people a different retirement benefit depending on where they live, so why doesn’t it seem odd that you get a different amount of education [spending] depending on where you live?”


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