Dan Walters: Does spending more boost education outcomes?

dwalters@sacbee.comMay 26, 2013 

Dan Walters

Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to change how K-12 schools are financed – giving more money to districts with large numbers of poor and/or English-learner students – faces criticism on several points.

One of them, often voiced by those in suburban districts, is that the current formula shouldn't be changed until schools reach some overall measure of financial adequacy.

The measure varies, depending on who's talking, but it's usually the national per-pupil average.

A new Census Bureau report on school spending, including federal funds, tells us what that would mean.

The report says California schools spent an average of $9,139 in direct operational costs on each of its 6.2 million students in 2011, not counting capital outlay and other ancillary expenses.

That $9,139 is about $1,400 under the national average and less than half of top-spending New York's $19,076. California was 36th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, with Utah lowest at $6,212.

In other words, California would have had to spend another $8.8 billion in 2011 to meet the national average, or roughly what we spent on prisons.

Matching New York would have cost $61.6 billion, more than doubling what California was spending.

Economically, reaching the average would not be a huge burden. School spending was just 3.6 percent of Californians' personal income in 2011, seventh lowest in the nation, and another $8.8 billion would add just a half-percent.

Politically, however, it would be difficult. Californians already have the nation's fifth highest overall tax burden.

The numbers raise another issue. Would a sharp increase in school spending, all by itself, generate significantly better outcomes?

Examining the Census Bureau report side-by-side with a recent federal Department of Education report on 2011 high school graduation rates reveals no correlation between spending and educational success.

New York spent more than twice as much per pupil as California, but its high school graduation rate, 77 percent, was virtually identical to our 76 percent. Washington, D.C., schools were slightly below New York in spending at $18,475, but had the nation's lowest graduation rate of 59 percent.

Conversely, the highest graduation rates, approaching 90 percent, were found in states with moderate rates of spending. Utah, dead last in spending, had the same 76 percent rate as California while Texas, which fell just below California in spending, had an 86 percent rate.

An adequate amount of money is obviously important. But just money, it would appear, isn't a magic bullet. Other factors, such as poverty, speaking English, culture, teacher quality and parental involvement, are evidently just as important.

Our political debate over education, however, almost never gets past money.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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