Show me the money!

The fad of suing states for more education funding has reached the state that can probably least afford it.

More than 60 children and nine school districts across California filed a historic lawsuit Thursday, arguing that elected officials have failed in their constitutional obligation to support public schools.

* * * *

In short, the case seeks to force the state Legislature and governor to fix a broken education funding system – one that has failed to take into account what it actually costs to educate a child, plaintiffs’ attorneys said.

Let me translate that for you: give our schools more money, because the $7500 – $11,000 per pupil that we spend (depending on whom you ask — the lower numbers tend to adjust for California’s higher “cost of living”) isn’t enough.
Part of the reason it’s not enough, we are to believe, is that California is below average:

The lawsuit notes that California lags well behind other states in funding and resources, falling to 44th in per pupil spending among states and 47th when adjusted for cost of living. The state ranks 49th in overall staffing ratios and 50th in librarians, the suit says. To reach the national average the state would need to hire another 104,000 teachers, plaintiff attorneys said.

“What’s most frustrating is that kids in other parts of the country have more opportunity than we do,” said Maya Robles-Wong, 16, the lead plaintiff in the suit and an Alameda High School junior, at a San Francisco news conference. “I’m here today to ask the state to fix this problem.”

There’s something good about the drive to excel: being low man on the totem pole can be a great motivator.  But it should be a motivator to improve.  The problem with looking at states in terms of being below average in expenditures is just that: you’re looking at expenditures.  All you have to do to close the gap is spend more of the taxpayer’s money.  Someone is always going to be below average.  Someone has to be the bottom of the 50-state survey of pupil spending.  (And if states all spend exactly the same, you can make a state below average with a cost of living adjustment!)

The lawsuit is actually funny that way.  Its premise goes something like this: The constitution demands that we do X.  We’re not doing X.  The reason that we’re not doing X is because we don’t have enough money.  Therefore the constitution demands that we get more money in order to do X.  I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out where the problem in that valid but unsound argument is.

In a perfect world, the governor’s office would use this lawsuit as a showcase to ask that question: why is it impossible for schools to work with the money they have?  But we all know that’s not going to happen.

Comments

  1. dangermom says:

    CA has a thing where they try to encourage smaller class sizes, so they give a financial incentive to schools that keep class sizes to 20 or less in grades K-3. Our local schools have given that up, because the district is broke and the money from the state isn’t enough to really pay for the extra teachers. I would imagine that this is happening throughout the state, so staffing numbers probably are going down.

    I have a hard time believing that we are really that low in spending–the spending is enormous, actually. It’s ridiculous to sue the state over this, when CA is broke broke broke. This is the last thing we need.

    It’s quite true that there are few school librarians left. Schools generally get along with library clerks, which are cheaper, and maybe one librarian overseeing a whole lot of clerks. (A school librarian has to have a library/media credential and is paid as a teacher. A master’s degree of library and information gets you nowhere with the schools–you have to get the credential too. So there may be quite a few MLIS’s being paid as clerks, who knows?) Either way, clerks rarely get the hours to be able to accomplish much besides getting books checked out and shelved, and school libraries do suffer. This is a shame, but you know what–no matter how much money you give schools, the libraries will always come in near the bottom of the list of priorities.

  2. SuperSub says:

    I’m not sure that I actually dislike this lawsuit. While on the first glance it seems frivolous and short-sighted, as Michael noted, it may bring attention to how the funds are being spent by schools and lead to some structured financial reform.

    The other thing this may do if the lawsuit is somewhat successful is cause lawmakers to focus on what their actual responsibilities are per the state constitution. Instead of discussing the merits of and passing various bills that are nothing more than pork, perhaps a dedicated group of lawmakers might return to the basics.

  3. SuperSub says:

    Or, at least a guy can hope.

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    …the $7500 – $11,000 per pupil that we spend (depending on whom you ask — the lower numbers tend to adjust for California’s higher “cost of living”)…

    and:

    I have a hard time believing that we are really that low in spending–the spending is enormous.

    I believe that what is mostly going on is this:

    *) The state spends around $9K per student per year for K-12 education. This is real money that gets spent. A few years ago the number was a bit higher than $10K and might have actually reached $11K before our current fiscal crisis.

    *) The school districts tend to get $2K to $3K *less* per student. I’d guess that with today’s roughly $9K per student, a typical school district receives $6K to $7K per student. I think that some of this $2K – $3K per student goes for things like capital expenditures, which are scored at the state level, but not the district level. I think. I tried to hunt down why we had this difference a few years ago and only got a partial answer.

    *) In addition, special ed students can be very expensive ($20K+ per year), partially because they often are in classrooms with a very small number of kids.

    The result of all this is that the total state spending per student ON AVERAGE will be about $9K/year and the average state spending per classroom per year will be about $9K×25 = $225K.

    But …

    They *typical* classroom might only see ½ of that money. Or even less once all the non-classroom-teacher salaries are accounted for (principal, reading specialist, nurse, librarian, janitor, …).

    The flow of money to a *typical* (not average) classroom might look like this:

    *) Start with $9K/student × 25 students = $225K
    *) Leave $3K/student at the state level = $150K
    *) Remove something to account for SPEC. I’ll guess. $130K
    *) Divide by 2 to account for the non-classroom-teachers = $65K

    This is how the state can be spending lots of money and the schools and teachers are crying poor.

    [NOTE: I made up and/or guessed at some of the factors, but the general flow is correct.]

    -Regards,
    Mark Roulo

  5. Mark Roulo says:

    Instead of discussing the merits of and passing various bills that are nothing more than pork, perhaps a dedicated group of lawmakers might return to the basics.

    The lawmakers believe that pork gets them re-elected. For a legislator, getting re-elected *IS* about the basics.

    -Mark Roulo

  6. Mark Roulo says:

    FYI, you can see the 44th claim here:

    http://www.edweek.org/rc/articles/2009/01/21/sow0121.h27.html

    Note that the number assigned to California is $7,571.

    Here is another number:

    http://cbp.org/documents/CaliforniaBudgetBites/How_Do_Schools_Compare.pdf

    This number is $8,825 (note how close this is to my $9K number in earlier posts).

    Finally, note some data for 2008-2009 from the Legislative Analyst’s Office:

    http://www.lao.ca.gov/analysis_2008/education/ed_anl08006.aspx

    This number is $11,626 per student “for 2008?09”

    Nailing down the *raw* data is hard enough … then when people start making adjustments … fun!

    -Mark Roulo

  7. “I’m not sure that I actually dislike this lawsuit. While on the first glance it seems frivolous and short-sighted,”

    this got New Jersey the income tax, don’t think that will work for California. The end results could really interesting.

  8. Mark Roulo says:

    this got New Jersey the income tax, don’t think that will work for California.

    Once something goes to the courts, it is difficult to predict what will happen. I can imagine a court overturning Prop 13, for example. Yes, Prop 13 is now part of the California constitution, but in 1985 a federal judge ruled that Kansas City and Missouri had to provide a certain amount of funding to KCMSD. When the money wasn’t forthcoming, the judge ordered that property taxes be doubled.

    I didn’t think that judges could *do* this, but it appears that I am wrong.

    I agree that the end results could be interesting … partially because they could be just about *anything*.

    -Mark Roulo

  9. I’m not sure why you describe this as a “fad” – individuals have been bringing similar suits since at least 1985 (I think a Ky. case was the first one), and have largely been successful.

    Note that the basis for these suits tend to be specific language in the state constitution, and they are typically brought on the basis of unequal distribution of school funding within the state. Which was typically the result of school funding being entirely local, and which (in Ky’s case) led to rural districts being substantially underfunded.

    But I don’t know what the basis for Calif’s suit is – while I suspect that the constitutions of most states do require equitable funding within the state, I doubt that they require a certain level of funding vis-a-vis *other* states.

  10. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Peter-

    Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think something that just appeared in the last 25 years as subject to being called a fad.

    Many of the state Constitutions in question (including California) have general provisions that state that a “high quality” or even just a “quality” education is required to be provided.

    The inequality angle is often just a way of showing that the education isn’t up to the constitutional “standard” (i.e., whatever the court decides is sufficient).

    But yes — you’re right. Several of the lawsuits are just about distribution.

  11. a teacher says:

    in my school district, funding has decreased by about $2500 within the last two years in per pupil funding.

    This decrease is not helpful in a district that is urban & poor.

  12. Our district was in a similar lawsuit that the state won. We get about $400/student in state *and* fed funding (really four hundred, not thousand). The silver lining has been that as the state struggles to fund school districts, it turns out the amount we’ve lost just isn’t that significant for us.