Fact Sheet

California’s Support for K-12 Education Is Improving, but Still Lags the Nation

California’s K-12 education spending per student has increased significantly since 2012-13, but continues to trail the nation as a whole. While not reflective of how much it actually costs to provide California’s students a high-quality education, rankings of state K-12 education spending are often used to assess California’s public investment in its schools.[1]  According to the most recent available information, 

  • In 2015-16, California ranked 41st among all states in spending per K-12 student after adjusting for differences in the cost of living in each state (see table below).[2]  California schools spent $10,291 per K-12 student in 2015-16, which is about $1,900 less than the $12,252 per student spent by the nation as a whole.[3]  California’s spending per student in 2015-16 was about $2,000 higher than it had been in 2012-13, at which point California ranked 50th in the nation.
  • California ranked 37th among all states in K-12 spending as a share of the state economy in 2015-16. California’s K-12 school spending in 2015-16 was 3.29% of state personal income — a measure that reflects the size of the state’s economy — compared to 3.78% in the nation as a whole. In 2012-13, California’s K-12 school spending equaled 3.18% of state personal income — compared to 3.93% in the nation as a whole — and ranked 46th among all states. Gauging school spending as a share of the personal income received by the state’s residents can be useful because it takes into account differences in states’ wealth and thus in their capacity to support K-12 schools.
  • California ranked last in the nation in the number of K-12 students per teacher in 2015-16. California’s student-to-teacher ratio in 2015-16 was greater than 22-to-1, more than 40% higher than the national ratio of 15.4 students per teacher. California had also ranked last in the nation in the number of K-12 students per teacher in 2012-13, with a ratio greater than 24-to-1.
  • California ranks last or close to last in the nation in the number of students per staff. In 2012-13 (the most recent year for which data are available), California’s student-to-librarian ratio was more than 7,800-to-1 (ranking 51st), its student-to-guidance-counselor ratio was 790-to-1 (51st), and its student-to-administrator ratio was 315-to-1 (48th).


In 2012-13, the gap between California’s spending per K-12 student and the nation as a whole grew to its widest point in at least 40 years. California voters approved Proposition 30 in November 2012, which increased state revenues and provided a significant boost to K-12 school spending.[4]  However, the latest figures illustrate that a sizable gap between California spending per K-12 student and the US remains. Accounting for differences in states’ costs of living, California would have needed to spend an additional $13.5 billion in 2015-16 to equal spending per K-12 student in the nation as a whole, an increase of 19.1%.

Substantially increasing California’s K-12 education spending almost certainly depends on the state raising additional revenue. Prop. 55, approved by voters in November 2016, extended Prop. 30’s personal income tax rates for very high-income Californians through 2030 (they had been scheduled to expire at the end of 2018), but did not extend Prop. 30’s quarter-cent increase in the state sales tax rate, which expired at the end of 2016. As a result, the Prop. 55 tax rate extensions will not affect state support for K-12 schools until 2018-19 and are unlikely to increase the level of state revenue compared to the boost that Prop. 30 provided.


[1] All state rankings and related comparisons in this fact sheet include the District of Columbia. For a discussion of why the amount that California is reported to spend per K-12 student, as well as its ranking relative to other states, varies depending on the source of this information and how it is interpreted, see Jonathan Kaplan, Key Considerations When Comparing California K-12 School Spending to Other States (California Budget & Policy Center: August 2015).

[2] Without adjusting for differences in states’ costs of living, California ranked 28th in the nation.

[3] California’s K-12 spending per student reflects a Budget Center analysis that adjusts spending figures for variations in states’ costs of living. This adjustment uses a “comparable wage index” developed by Dr. Lori Taylor at Texas A&M University and William Fowler, Jr. at the National Center for Education Statistics, and subsequently updated by Dr. Taylor. This index is a commonly used method of adjusting K-12 spending for differences in states’ costs of living. For example, see Education Week, Quality Counts 2017: Building on ESSA’s K-12 Foundation (December 2016).

[4] Proposition 30 raised the state sales tax rate through 2016 and the personal income tax rates on high-income taxpayers through 2018.