Education Smart Local News Funded by Smart Local People

Fact Check: California's Not to Blame for District Budget Woes

School districts in California have more state money and more local control over spending than ever, making it harder to blame Sacramento for their current financial troubles.

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.

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.

Show Comments
Loading

We’re striving for the best possible discussion and may delete comments using our editorial judgment. All comments containing links will be reviewed by VOSD staff before they are published.
Read our full comment policy.
For longer comments, consider submitting an op-ed to Voice of San Diego.
Read the guidelines here.

We have recently updated our commenting system. If you are unable to submit a comment, please clear the cache and cookies in your browser, or use a private browsing window. Click here for detailed instructions.