Commentary - Does spending more on schools pay off?

By Dan Walters |  CALmatters Columnist |  

As Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first budget was being wrought, the perennial issue of spending on K-12 education was thrashed out once again.

The education establishment – professional educators, their unions, their political allies and sympathetic academicians  – complained anew that California schools are being shorted the money they need to raise achievement levels of the state’s nearly 6 million elementary and secondary students.

The newly elected state schools superintendent, former Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, has postulated that California needs to be spending another $30 billion a year – roughly $5,000 more per pupil – to adequately educate its youngsters.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat, arose on the Assembly floor during its debate on the budget to decry that “We’re still 41st in per-pupil spending,” even though Newsom included a handsome increase for schools in his budget.

The exchanges raised two questions that deserve exploration:

- Are we, in fact, 41st in the nation in school funding?

- Would significantly increasing school spending result in better academic outcomes?

The first would seem to be easy to answer, but as with all comparisons, it depends on definitions and context.

The assertion that we are near the bottom is based on adjusting spending for the cost-of-living and since California has very high costs, arguably the highest in the nation, whatever we spend will be pushed downward in rankings.

In unadjusted dollars, according to the Census Bureau’s most recent annual report on school finances, we were 21st in per-pupil spending in 2017 at $12,143 from all sources, including federal funds, slightly below the national average of $12,201.

The District of Columbia topped the list at $23,091, followed by New York at $21,974, Connecticut at $19,322 and New Jersey at $18,920.

Utah was dead last at $7,179, with Idaho ($7,486) and Arizona ($8,003) slightly higher.

With virtually stagnant enrollment, California has increased overall spending and thus per-pupil spending by about 50% in recent years and Newsom’s first budget raises the latter to $17,160.

Using the 2017 Census Bureau rankings as a guide, California is likely in the top 10 in per-pupil spending now – albeit unadjusted for the cost-of-living. Even with such an adjustment, we’re at least in the middle ranks of states.

The second question is even trickier. The advocates of pushing California’s school spending into the top ranks imply that were we to spend $5,000 more per pupil per year, we would see a miraculous improvement in our – at best – mediocre academic outcomes.

But another comparison – how students perform on the federal government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing – is not encouraging.

There is simply no correlation between money and achievement in side-by-side comparisons of 8th-grade reading scores, an important benchmark because reading comprehension is vital to success in all subjects, particularly for students about to enter high school.

The District of Columbia spends the most but its 2019 reading score of 247 is 18 points under the national average and one of the nation’s lowest. New York is second in spending but its reading score, 263, is not only two points under the average, but identical to California’s.

No. 3 Connecticut and No. 4 New Jersey are both markedly above average, but so are No. 51 Utah and No. 50 Idaho.

The inescapable point is that money is clearly not the only factor in educational outcomes, and perhaps not even the most important one. There are socioeconomic, cultural, familial and other forces at play and we shouldn’t make money the sole approach to our educational dilemma. It’s much more complicated than that.

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to

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