Settling the Debate: California Spends Less on Each Student – by Any Measure

How does California compare to other states with respect to support for its public schools? Answering that question based on how much the state spends per student has led to a debate. Some rank California near the bottom, while others have placed the state closer to the middle of the pack. The controversy centers on data sources and methods. Historically, California’s per pupil spending ranks relatively poorly when measured by data that adjusts for regional cost differences, but it ranks somewhat higher when those adjustments are not made. Data recently released by the National Education Association (NEA), which are not adjusted for regional cost differences, may quell the controversy.

According to the NEA, California’s K-12 education spending dropped by more than $1,000 per student – 10.6 percent – between 2007-08 and 2009-10. As a result, California’s per pupil spending ranking fell from 34th in the nation in 2007-08 to 45th this year, absent adjustment for regional cost differences. According to the most recent data published by Education Week, which attempts to adjust spending to reflect differences in states’ cost-of-living, California ranked 46th in per pupil spending in 2006-07. It is reasonable to assume that California’s ranking will not improve once Education Week’s cost-adjusted data are updated to 2009-10. This is because the NEA data show that California’s school spending was cut more than other states’ and regional cost differences are likely to have remained largely unchanged.

Governor Schwarzenegger’s budget proposals could cause the state’s ranking to slip even further. Despite assertions that he is protecting education funding, the Governor’s proposed budget would cut $2.1 billion from K-12 education spending between 2009-10 and 2010-11. Under the Governor’s proposal, 2010-11 K-12 spending would be $6.4 billion – 12.7 percent – lower than in 2007-08. When measured on a per pupil basis, the state would spend less in 2010-11 than it did in 1997-98, after adjusting for inflation. The debate over how California compares to other states with respect to per pupil spending may become less heated, but a question remains: How much should the state spend to ensure that all California students receive a quality education?

— Jonathan Kaplan

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