By Rob Kuznia, Staff Writer, LA Newspaper Group | http://bit.ly/13lZjQR
Teacher Mark Duvall's Torrance High classrom is packed with 43 students in this 2010 file photo. (Robert Casillas/Daily Breeze)
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7/27/2013 10:59:52 [Updated: 07/27/2013 03:48:13 ] :: It's difficult to believe now, but there was a time -- through the eras of flower children, bell bottoms and disco -- when the Golden State was widely seen as the gold standard on education spending.
Class sizes were low. Schools were well maintained. Textbooks and other instructional materials were new.
Back then, California ranked in the top 10 nationwide in per pupil education spending.
The abundance made an impression on Michael Kirst, now the president of the California State Board of Education, when he moved to California from Virginia in 1969.
"There was free summer school for every kid that wanted it," he said. "I'd never heard of such a thing."
A multitude of factors has caused California's relative standing in school spending to sink like a gold coin in a swimming pool.
THE HARD TRUTH about education funding
The state now ranks 35th in per pupil spending, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Factor in cost-of-living considerations and California's place in the pecking order among all 50 states and the District of Columbia is a dismal 49. That's ahead of only Nevada and Utah, according to a widely cited annual January report by Education Week. (Per-pupil spending figures from Education Week include state and local funds, but not federal money, or funds for capital improvements. Census figures include federal dollars but also exclude capital outlay.)
However, the needle is poised to begin moving in the other direction, thanks to two big game-changers. One is the November passage of Proposition 30, the temporary tax hike that will primarily benefit public education. The other, which was signed into law in late June, is the Local Control Funding Formula -- Gov. Jerry Brown's successful attempt to revolutionize the way school dollars are distributed.
The first wave of replenishment will hit the coffers of local school districts this fall, mostly in modest fashion. The infusion is expected to increase year by year for a time, but specific numbers are tough to come by.
The Governor's Office has projected that, by 2016-17, California will boost its per-pupil spending by $2,800 over the 2011-12 amount, bringing it to somewhere near the current national average in raw dollars. That would be quite a bump, but that projection is questioned in some education circles.
From left, Pre-K Special Day Class students Robert Machuca, 4, Victor Perez, 4, and Lupita Soto, 3, play with Speech and Language Pathologist Laura LaVigne at Greenwood Elementary School in the Montebello area on July 26, 2013. (Watchara Phomicinda/San Gabriel Valley Tribune)
In any event, the approaching relief raises an intriguing question: to what extent -- if at all -- will more money lead to better academic performance? It's a question that the brightest minds in education have been debating for years.
"Some would argue there is very little correlation," said Maggie Weston, a research fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California. "Others would say we probably should be spending more money, but it's about wise investment. So, just spending more money in exactly the same way probably won't lead to better student outcome."
As it happens, California's level of its funding lines up pretty neatly with the performance of its students.
Much as it ranks 49th on cost-adjusted per-pupil spending, its nationwide standing in academic performance on math and English tests among fourth- and eighth-graders ranges from 46th to 49th, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- the most authoritative source of interstate comparison on academic performance.
Similarly, Vermont, which occupies the No. 1 spot nationwide on per-pupil spending by Education Week's measure, ranks an impressive 6th in fourth-grade mathematics.
But on the other hand, test scores in California have risen steadily over the past half-decade, even though that stretch of time marks one of the worst five-year periods for school finance in state history.
"If you take the negative angle, you could say 'so money doesn't matter,' " said Peter Birdsall, executive director of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. "Public school educators in California did a wonderful job. ... The problem is, people can only keep up that level of exertion for so long."
And then there is the puzzle of Texas.
Per pupil spending in the Lone Star State is in the neighborhood of California's, clocking in at 44th nationwide by the measure of Education Week. And yet, students in California are vastly outperformed by their peers in Texas -- the nation's second-largest state, whose demographics closely mirror those of California. (In both states, for instance, Latino students have recently become a majority population in the schools.)
Eighth-graders in Texas rank 10th nationally in mathematics; their counterparts in California are at the bottom of the heap, just above Mississippi and Alabama, at 49th.
In his book, "The Money Myth," Norton Grubb, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, makes the case that money's ability to boost performance in schools is often overstated.
Grubb is quick to clarify this thesis.
"I would never say money doesn't make a difference; money does make a difference," he said.
It's just that some expenditures are more effective than others, Grubb said. Raising teacher salaries, for instance, correlates to better test scores, graduation rates and credits earned, he said. Investing in school counselors tends to reap similar results. Conversely, some spending has produced little in the way of measurable academic benefits. Falling into this category, according to Grubb, are the class-size reduction efforts of recent years and intervention programs for lagging students.
Grubb has even found a relationship between some forms of spending and worse performance. The biggie here, Grubb says, is traditional vocational arts classes such as automotive and shop class.
As for California's low national standing on school spending, it doesn't extend to teacher pay. At $68,500, the salary of the average teacher in California during the 2011-12 school year ranked fifth nationwide, according to the National Education Association.
Conversely, California schools have the fewest number of adults in contact with children. This includes not only teachers, but administrators, librarians and counselors.
"We are dead last," Kirst said. "That is really compelling. More interesting even than class size. We have less of everything -- even janitors."
The history of California's funding decline is complex, but a couple of momentous events are widely seen as change agents.
The first was a landmark lawsuit in the early 1970s -- Serrano v. Priest -- that sought to correct an inequity: school districts in wealthy areas had way more money than their counterparts in poor areas. The courts agreed with the plaintiff, John Serrano -- a parent of a student in the Los Angeles Unified School District -- that the funding formula violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Limits were placed on per-pupil expenditures.
The second was the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 -- an epic shake-up in government that provided tax relief to homeowners but shifted the burden of education funding from the local level to the state.
Why did this cause a drop-off? Experts aren't certain. One theory, put forth in a report by the Public Policy Institute of California, suggests that before the initiative, the property taxes paid by commercial interests subsidized schools to a greater degree.
Another theory -- expressed by Sacramento Bee journalist and author Peter Schrag -- attributes the backslide to white voters' increasing reluctance to support an education system that benefits a higher and higher percentage of nonwhite students.
In any case, by many accounts, Proposition 13 generally marks the point at which California's national standing on per pupil funding began to dip below the national average.
All the while, a massive wave of immigration has led to a demographic sea change leaving schools in a much needier position. (Latinos, who make up one of the most disadvantaged demographics in education, made up just 12 percent of the state's population in 1970, and now constitute 38 percent of all Californians.)
Approved in June by the state Legislature, Brown's Local Control Funding Formula popularly grants school districts much more local control in deciding how to spend their dollars. The controversial part is how it also dedicates significantly more money to the districts serving disadvantaged students.
Many school leaders in the suburbs fear the formula will give their districts short shrift.
Among them is George Mannon, superintendent of the Torrance Unified School District, who believes the numbers are based too much on intuition, and not enough on hard facts. He contends it would have been better to wait a year and use that time to carefully study how much more money is truly needed to educate disadvantaged students.
"We're making decisions without basing them on research," he said.
Legislatively, it has been surprisingly popular. The funding model was approved by not only a majority of Democrats in both the state Senate and Assembly, but of Republicans, who relish the return of local control.
"The current system was collapsing and had no defenders," said Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford who is widely considered the father of the state's brand-new formula.
(Brown's Local Control Funding Formula was based on "Getting Beyond the Facts," a 2008 report co-authored by Kirst, former California Secretary of Education Alan Bersin and now-state Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu.)
Grubb sees Proposition 30 and the Local Control Funding Formula as the one-two punch needed for progress: more money, and smarter use of it.
But he cautions that it could be a long time before improvements are measurable. "California has spent about 35 years making these problems," he said. "It's going to take another 35 to get us out of the problems."