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November 14, 2012

California's public school system is not only one of the worst funded in the nation, the funding system is also in a state of decline. When voters approved Proposition 30 on election day, they averted even more draconian cuts. But Prop 30 funds will not improve the overall level and fairness of school funding, an essential prerequisite to improving opportunities and outcomes for the state's over 6 million public school students.

California's schools have comparatively low spending per pupil, a direct result of the lack of fiscal effort the state makes towards funding its schools. These factors, combined with a funding distribution system that does little to target additional aid to those who most need it, places California among the lowest ranked states in a recent evaluation of the fairness of states' school funding systems.

The report, "Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card -- 2nd Edition", is coauthored by Bruce Baker of the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, David Sciarra, Executive Director of Education Law Center (ELC), and Danielle Farrie, Research Director for ELC.

First issued in 2010, the report is built on the principle that sufficient school funding, fairly distributed to districts to address concentrated poverty, is the essential precondition for the delivery of high quality education. Predictable, stable, and equitable funding mechanisms are required to improve the condition and performance of schools across the country.

The Report Card evaluates states on four separate, but interrelated, "fairness indicators" -- funding level, funding distribution, state fiscal effort, and public school coverage. California performs poorly on funding level and effort, and average on the funding distribution.

Not surprisingly, California received an "F" on fiscal effort. This measures the percentage of the state's fiscal capacity that is spent on education. California, despite its enormous economy and relatively high fiscal capacity, devotes a small proportion of its wealth and economic vibrancy to public education. Even worse, that percentage declined from 2007 to 2009, the period studied, from 3.4% to 3.0%.

California's lack of investment in its public schools results in students receiving among the lowest levels of funding in the country. Using figures adjusted to allow state-to-state comparisons, California spent only $8,897 per pupil in 2009, ranking 43rd among all states and far below the national average of $10,774. Again, the state is moving backwards with funding levels dropping over $400 per pupil on average between 2008 and 2009.

California does distribute funding so that higher poverty districts receive slightly more that low poverty districts, receiving an average "C" grade when compared other states. This is little consolation, however, given the insufficient overall level of school funding. It does also not take into account the significant "off formula" funds raised through voluntary contributions to public schools in the state's more affluent communities.

On the coverage indicator, which evaluates the share of school-age children attending public school and the median household income of those children compared to those who do not, California ranks 33rd in the nation. This means that one in ten school-aged children in the state do not attend public schools and the median household income for these students is almost twice that of their public school peers. The median income for public school students is $77,925 compared to $147,536 for nonpublic students.

While California's public K-12 schools and public universities will continue to be underfunded, voters prevented another round of major cuts by passing Prop 30 on November 6, 2012. These mid-year cuts would have lopped off as many as 20 school days in some districts. Instead, current funding, which is less than the 2007-08 level, will continue.

See "Big win for schools as Prop 30 defies polls," a summary news analysis from California's EdSource.

The dire condition of California's school finance system has implications beyond its borders. The continuing underfunding of the state's public schools limits the opportunity for its children to gain a quality education and become capable and productive citizens. Because one of every eight K-12 students in the U.S. attends school in California, this situation undermines the future of the nation as a whole.

Related Stories:
Texas: Another State Failing to Provide Fair School Funding
Florida's Inequitable Public School Funding Sparks Legal Challenge
Illinois School Funding among Nation's Worst
Pennsylvania Retreats from Fair School Funding
New York School Funding among Nation's Most Unfair
The Garden State: A Beacon of Educational Equity in the Region
Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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