Thursday, June 23, 2005

Truth Is, We Do Underfund Our Schools

San Francisco Chronicle
by Goodwin Liu
Thursday, June 23, 2005

In "What We Really Spend on Education" (June 10), political commentator Jill Stewart says "ignorant voters" should stop insisting that California spend more money on public schools. Citing fresh data from the National Center for Education Statistics, she reports that California spent $7, 552 per student in 2002-03, placing 26th among all states and just $22 shy of the national median. "We do not 'underfund' our schools," Stewart asserted. "Why doesn't everyone know this?"

The answer is simple: Because it isn't true.

With a ballot measure this fall proposing to amend the state constitution to reduce the minimum funding guarantee for public schools, voters deserve to know how our education spending stacks up against other states. But Stewart's use of the data does not offer a fair comparison.

To begin with, education costs more to provide in California than elsewhere. This should come as no surprise, given our high cost of living. Teachers are the most important determinant of school quality; on average, it costs more to hire good teachers in California, because it costs more for teachers to live here.

To equalize the purchasing power of education dollars from state to state, the NCES has developed an index that estimates geographic differences in education costs. If you were to adjust raw spending data with this cost index (as I did), the result shows that California's per-pupil spending in 2002-03 ranked 42nd in the nation, not 26th.

But even this is an imperfect comparison. True to its heritage as a land of opportunity, California has a higher percentage of poor children and English-language learners than other states. These children often lack the educational advantages of children from middle-class, English-speaking families. On average, this means that an education dollar will buy higher achievement in other states than in California, because the same dollar must be stretched further in California to meet the special needs of our diverse student body.

Let us assume (very conservatively) that each poor child or English learner needs 20 percent more resources than the average child in order to reach the same level of achievement. When this additional factor is taken into account, California's education spending ranked 45th in the nation in 2002-03, just above Mississippi's.

To put this grim reality in further perspective, the NCES has published 2000-01 data on the per-pupil expenditure of school districts at the 10th, 50th and 90th percentile of spending in each state. When adjusted for regional cost differences and student demographics, these data show that 90 percent of districts in 37 states spent more than the median district in California. Moreover, low spending in California is not confined to a few highly populous districts: 90 percent of California districts spent less than the median district in 14 other states, and nearly 90 percent of districts in New Jersey, New York and Wyoming outspent all but the top 10 percent of districts in California.

Although researchers continue to debate the relationship between money and outcomes, it hardly seems coincidental that California's student achievement, like its real per-pupil spending, trails almost every other state. A recent report by the nonpartisan think tank RAND found that the average math and reading performance of California students from 1990 to 2003 on the widely respected National Assessment of Educational Progress ranked 48th in the nation, just below New Mexico and Alabama and just above Louisiana and Mississippi -- all low-spending states. Meanwhile, high-spending states such as Wisconsin and Massachusetts dominated the top ranks -- where California used to be 30 years ago.

Our state's changing demographics do not fully explain its weak performance. California students of every major racial group, including whites, perform worse than their counterparts in the rest of the nation. Furthermore, RAND found that "Black, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic white students in California are among the lowest-scoring students in the nation when compared to students in other states who have similar family characteristics." These facts support what common sense suggests: In education, as in life, you get what you pay for.

The irony is that California has long been a leader in setting high academic standards to guide curriculum and instruction. In two studies released this year, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington ranked California's standards among the very best in the nation. Our English-language arts standards, it said, are "balanced and comprehensive," and our math standards "come as close to perfection as any set of mathematics standards in the country." No other state exhibits such an enormous gap between its expectations and its performance in K-12 education.

In order to bridge this gap, we need a host of reforms to make schools more accountable, more efficient and more competitive. But we also need to follow a simple principle in funding our schools: Our education budget must be based on what it actually costs to enable all children to learn to high standards, not on annual political conflict and compromise. In such states as Kansas, Kentucky and New York, where lawsuits have successfully challenged inadequate school funding, courts have ordered legislatures to put this basic principle into practice, and a valuable research base is emerging on how to estimate the real cost of a high-quality education.

In April, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took a step toward elevating public schools above politics by convening an Advisory Committee on Education Excellence, led by respected educator and former Occidental College President Ted Mitchell. In setting its priorities, the governor asked the committee to study the adequacy of education funding in order "to make California's schools the best in the nation once again." But the governor has sent a mixed signal by supporting a measure in this fall's special election that seeks to limit the minimum-funding guarantee for public schools. It would be remarkable if his advisory committee did not confirm what many voters already know: California cannot have the best schools in the nation so long as our education funding is among the worst.

Goodwin Liu is an assistant professor of law at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. With Boalt's dean, Christopher Edley, he is co-director of a new civil-rights initiative called "Rethinking Rodriguez: Education as a Fundamental Right."

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