By Dan Walters } CALmatters Columnist
Unfortunately, nationwide academic tests tell us that California’s 6 million K-12 school students rank near the bottom in achievement vis-à-vis those in other states.
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In the National Assessment of Academic Progress testing, for example, California’s fourth-graders rank lower than those in 45 other states and in reading, lower than kids in 39 other states.
Reading, math and other vital skills are especially lacking among Latino and black students, creating a long-standing “achievement gap” that appears to be wider in California than elsewhere.
Nevertheless, the gap has continued, touching off acrimonious debate among educational factions over causes and cures.
As the education establishment and an “Equity Coalition” of reform and civil rights groups argue over what should be done, they agree that closing the gap will take more money, contending that despite recent increases, California’s per-pupil spending lags most other states.
Lots of school spending numbers kick around and they don’t always agree. Comparative data lag reality, sometimes by several years, and there’s no universal agreement on what spending to include and whether it should be adjusted for cost-of-living.
The most recent data from the Census Bureau, dated 2016 and unadjusted for cost-of-living, peg California at $13,923 per pupil per year from federal, state and local sources, virtually identical to the national average. Other states ranged from $25,730 in New York to $8,244 in Idaho.
The candidates for state schools superintendent, Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, a Richmond Democrat, and charter school and reform advocate Marshall Tuck, also a Democrat, reflect the two contending education factions and disagree on many issues, but spending more money isn’t one of them.
Thurmond told a recent candidate forum that if elected, he wants California to reach the “top 10 in the first four years and No. 1 in eight years.”
Tuck told CALmatters in a recent interview that California should spend “30 percent more.”
With 6 million students, a number virtually unchanged for years, increasing spending by $1,000 per pupil would cost $6 billion a year.
Therefore, either pushing California into the top 10 states, as Thurmond proposes, or reaching Tuck’s goal of a 30 percent increase would boost spending, and the taxes to pay for it, by $25-plus billion a year.
Surpassing No. 1 New York, Thurmond’s other goal, would require nearly doubling California’s spending, or about $70-plus billion more each year.
Where would California get such money?
Both candidates support a union-sponsored measure destined for the 2020 ballot that would eliminate the Proposition 13 property tax limit for commercial property, raising an estimated $6 to $10 billion a year, 40 percent of which would go to schools.
That would generate $2.4 to $4 billion a year for education, or perhaps enough for a $500 per pupil increase – a tiny fraction of the Tuck and Thurmond goals.
After that? There’s nothing on the table.
There’s also no certainty that spending tens of billions of dollars more on schools would close the gap.
No. 1 New York’s 4th-grade national assessment scores are virtually identical to those of California, which spends scarcely half as much. Idaho, which is No. 50 in spending, has scores as high or higher than both. Texas’ demographics are similar to California’s and spends less per pupil but has higher scores.
Money, it would seem, is not the simplistic cure-all for California’s educational crisis that many would have us believe.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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