Making Sense of School Spending Data

A recent CBP School Finance Facts found that a decade of disinvestment has left California spending for public schools at or near the bottom when compared to other states. However, a recent Sacramento Bee column claimed that we selectively used data to demonstrate that California schools are “being woefully underfinanced.” As an organization with a deep commitment to accuracy, credibility, and fact-based analysis, we want to explain to our readers why the data we analyze is the best available.

The CBP uses National Education Association (NEA) data to compare California spending per pupil to that in other states because the NEA’s figures are the most current national spending data available and offer what we believe is an up-to-date reflection of California’s education spending. For example, our recent report uses NEA data that reflects 2010-11 school spending. By contrast, the data most recently released from the National Center for Education Statistics and the US Census reflect 2008-09 school spending. Thus, the Census data referenced in the Sacramento Bee column do not reflect changes in school spending since 2008-09. Moreover, despite controversies remarked upon in a previous CBP blog post, the CBP has consistently used NEA data to report California’s per pupil spending, even when it showed a more positive rank for California than did other sources.

The CBP and other organizations use spending data, rather than revenue data, to compare California’s per pupil support for schools to that in other states. This is because revenue data include dollars that are not directly related to the annual cost of educating students, such as capital outlay (i.e., school construction dollars). The Sacramento Bee column claimed that the Census data “pegs California’s per-pupil number at $11,588,” but this figure actually reflects 2008-09 school revenue per pupil. In fact, according to Census data, California spending per pupil in 2008-09 was $9,657, just $185 more than NEA’s per pupil spending figure of $9,472 for that year.

The gap between resources available to California schools and those in the rest of the nation has widened substantially regardless of the data analyzed. According to the Census data referenced in the Sacramento Bee column, the gap between California spending per student and per student spending in the nation grew more than threefold (267.5 percent) between 2001-02 and 2008-09, after adjusting for inflation. The real question we should be focused on is not what data sources to use, but whether the resources available to California schools are adequate to ensure students the opportunities that a quality education affords.

—Jonathan Kaplan