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California rises to 30th in nation in pre-Covid per-student spending

California continued to move up in state rankings of spending per student, although it remains below the national average, according to the New Jersey-based Education Law Center, which released its annual school financing report Thursday.

In 2018-19, the latest data available, California ranked 30th in the nation, compared with 34th two years ago and 47th in 2012-13, when it and other states were still feeling the impact of the Great Recession. In the latest ranking, California spent $14,174 per student, $940 below the national average of $15,114. The numbers were adjusted for the regional cost of living, which is higher than average in California.

The center cited California not only for investing more money in education, but also doing so with a progressive funding system. Districts with the most low-income children received $1,991 per student more than districts with the least low-income students, the eighth-most progressive funding system, it said.

California was ranked 21st with little difference between the wealthiest and poorest districts in 2013. That was the year that California adopted the Local Control Funding Formula, which supplements funding to districts based on their numbers of English learners and low-income, foster and homeless children. Funding for those high-needs students has increased substantially since then.

However, by a third measure – “funding effort” – how much a state funds preK-12 schools based on its capacity to raise money, California continues to underfund its schools. In 2018-19, it spent 2.88% of the state’s economic activity, or GDP, compared with an average 3.37% nationwide, earning it a “D” rating. The state’s per-capita income was $71,011, compared with $56,830 nationwide.

The state’s spending ranking may continue to rise for several years; California and other states dependent on a progressive income tax saw their revenues rebound quicker from the Covid recession than other states relying on sales and tourism taxes.

The center, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Newark, N.J., based its analysis on U.S. Census Bureau data.

The report criticized “the inaction and even outright hostility” from governors and legislators to invest more in education and provide more funding for high-poverty schools.  “The underfunding of schools is not, as some policymakers would like the public to believe, an unfortunate reality of budget constraints,” said executive director and report co-author David Sciarra.