StretchStatement: “California is currently ranked 46th in the nation on per pupil funding, and San Diego Unified is one of many districts across the state facing a spending shortfall for next year,” the school district wrote in an April 20 press release.

Determination: A stretch

Analysis: While grappling with deep budget cuts this year, San Diego Unified School District officials have repeatedly pointed to Sacramento as a cause of the problem. The district now plans to lay off roughly 1,700 employees next school year to balance the budget.

As part of its #StrongerSchools campaign – its attempt to frame the cuts as improvements to schools – the district’s Twitter account sent out messages in February highlighting per pupil funding in California, just as crowds were gathering to discuss more than $124 million in cuts for next school year.

“California is currently ranked 46th in the nation on per pupil funding,” the district said in a press release last week about Superintendent Cindy Marten’s trip to Sacramento, and her efforts to advocate for more school funding.

A district spokeswoman said the stat came from EdWeek’s 2017 Quality Counts listing, which said California spent $8,694 per student annually, less than the national average and less than 44 other states, plus the District of Columbia.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Per pupil spending in the state of California is indeed lower than other states in the country. Both Vermont and Alaska spent $19,000 or more per pupil, according to the EdWeek list.

But whether California actually ranks 46th in the country is debatable for a few reasons – a fact district officials seemed to acknowledge when they shared via email a Feb. 28 EdSource article, “How does California rank in per-pupil spending? It all depends.”

First and foremost, the EdWeek ranking used 2013-14 spending data, and a lot has happened since then to boost funding for schools in California, and San Diego Unified specifically.

Not only did California voters extend certain personal income tax hikes that fund education through 2030 by passing Prop. 55 in November, the state’s new formula for allocating money to schools – called the Local Control Funding Formula – took effect in 2013-14.

The formula sends more money to schools serving high populations of English-learners, socioeconomically disadvantaged students and other vulnerable youth.

San Diego Unified’s diverse 100,000-student population includes a larger portion of those groups than many other districts, so its budget has benefited greatly from the change. Millions more dollars quickly poured into the district.

As Voice of San Diego reported in December, San Diego Unified’s general fund revenues have grown tremendously, but expenses grew faster. Expenses are expected to exceed revenues by about $100 million this school year, school district records show.

Notably, general fund revenues jumped from less than $1.03 billion in 2012-13 to $1.2 billion in 2014-15 and continued to climb, nearing $1.3 billion this year. That’s an increase of more than $267 million in four years, or 26 percent.

At the same time, general fund expenses rose $318 million, peaking this year at more than $1.39 billion. That’s 30 percent higher than the $1 billion officials spent four years ago.

“The state’s economy has improved substantially since then (2013-14), and the state’s spending on K-12 schools has increased significantly,” district spokeswoman Shari Winet wrote in an email last week. “Using the same methodology, it’s likely its ranking will improve for the current school year (2016-17).”

So, while California may have ranked 46th three years ago, funding for schools increased dramatically since then, and that’s to say nothing about the billions of dollars in extra taxes approved via local bond measures for construction projects not factored into the equation.

Also not mentioned: San Diego Unified spent more per student than the California average in 2013-14, coming in at $9,880, according to the EdWeek numbers.

Also unmentioned is the fact EdWeek’s numbers were “adjusted for regional cost differences,” which lowers the amounts in high-cost states, like California. The goal is to take into account the fact those states can provide fewer services for the same amount as lower-cost states.

That means we are not talking strict dollar-for-dollar comparisons here.

Other rankings released by the National Education Association, and the nonprofit California Budget and Policy Center using 2015-16 spending data put California 22nd and 41st in the nation, respectively. Not all stats factor in cost-of-living differences, and some states don’t include spending on before- and after-school programs or summer school in their report to NEA. The variations source by source are numerous.

Locally, a state dataset shows San Diego Unified spent $12,265 per pupil in 2015-16, or 14th highest in San Diego County behind much smaller districts and the Grossmont Union High School District, which spent $12,818, not including food services, facilities acquisition and construction, and some other expenses left out. The county average that year was below San Diego Unified at $10,991.

Still, by that measure, San Diego Unified outpaced the state average and the average for unified school districts, which typically serve grades K-12.

Ed Data

Throw in the general fund costs left out before and the trend remains the same. San Diego Unified has fared better than most school districts in California.

Without factoring in inflation, school districts in California have more state money and more local control over spending than ever before, making it harder to blame Sacramento for their current financial troubles.

San Diego Unified claimed “California is currently ranked 46th in the nation on per pupil funding,” and was referring to a 2017 report that used older, adjusted data.

The district failed to disclose the data was outdated, didn’t mention it was not a dollar-for-dollar comparison, nor that the district has routinely received and spent more money than other districts in the state.

So, while there is an element of truth to the claim, it lacked critical context that may significantly alter the impression the statement leaves. For that reason, we deem the claim a stretch.

    This article relates to: Education, Fact Check, School Finances, State Government

    Written by Ashly McGlone

    Ashly is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at or 619.550.5669.

    Michael Russell
    Michael Russell subscriber

    CA is still screwed up. The people who own California refuse to pay their fair share of the costs of our infrastructure. The very people who benefit from our society, who have grown wealthy from our systems of government, refuse to pay the bills. We need a split-roll property tax. Prop-13 was a mistake, a confidence game. it created a tax-loophole for the rich to buy up all the real-estate property and become a landed-class.  End the tax loophole for investment and commercial real-estate. One house per person.

    Noplace Forhate
    Noplace Forhate

    Why so many layoffs in San Diego City Schools? No one on the school board knows math?

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    So California ranks very low in something called "per pupil funding', 46th a few years ago according to one of your sources.  The allegation has frequently been made here, and elsewhere in the state, that available money is spent largely on raises for teachers due to the power of the teachers unions and the general friendliness of the governor and legislature to organized labor in general and particularly to school related unions.

    Just for fun, I looked at one of the many surveys on the internet purporting to show average teacher salaries by state.  On the one I consulted, California teachers ranked 4th highest, trailing only New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut.  So, out of 52 states, California ranks somewhere around 46th in spending per pupil but 4th highest in teacher salaries.  

    Seems there may be some correlation here.  Perhaps you could query the SDUSD board on this one. I'm sure their response would be fascinating.

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith subscriber

    @Bill Bradshaw Part of it could be to the higher cost of living in San Diego.  All of the states you list are pretty expensive to live in.  So if you want teachers, you are going to have to pay them a salary that affords them to live in proximity to your city.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Rick Smith @Bill Bradshaw Higher cost of living than where?  Remember, I'm quoting state figures, not San Diego city or county.  Let's see the data on teacher voluntary quits going to positions in other states.  If it's high, perhaps the point made is valid, but I've heard it so much for so many positions, not only in education but elsewhere, that I'm a bit skeptical.  

    What we do know is this:  Time after time the district gets additional money for various purposes and spends a lot of it on pay raises, then discovers a new "shortfall", after which they lay people off.  Not the way to operate, in my humble opinion.   

    Alan Underwood
    Alan Underwood

    @Bill Bradshaw California teachers have one of the highest teacher to student ratios, living in many parts of CA is expensive.  If you check teacher salaries adjusted for cost of living that 4th rank goes away fairly quick.  If you check out this graph: you'll see CA is ranked 4th in actual salary but spending power is 32.  Also, yes the amount of money has gone up quite a bit since 2014, but we are still about 1,000 per student under the national average.  Perhaps one needs to look at the whole picture and compare all of the factors that go into those numbers.  CA is still, and will continue to be, underfunding education .  Thank you for your concern though regarding our education system in CA.