Spending among California schools far from equal

June 3, 2011 12:20:42 AM PDT
Schools all over the state are struggling financially, but spending at public schools is far from equal. That is the finding of our media partner California Watch, part of the non-profit project of the Center For Investigative Reporting. They've been pouring over public records and what they've found is huge disparities in the amount of cash spent district to district. And more money does not guarantee academic success.

At the Ravenswood School District in East Palo Alto budget cuts have made it difficult to get things done.

"While we can barely afford just the textbooks, we can't afford to provide those supplemental materials that the classroom teachers need," said Ravenswood Superintendent Maria De La Vega.

De La Vega struggles to meet the needs of her student body.

"What the difference is that at least 49 percent of that, of our budget, is categorical that is targeted for specific programs," said De La Vega.

The complicated school finance system is to blame. For instance, California Watch found the Ravenswood School District gets almost as much money per student -- $12,987 -- as it's wealthier neighbor Palo Alto who gets $13,376, but still does not achieve the same academic success.

California Watch reporter Louis Freedberg poured over data provided by the state and federal government to pull together the amount of money spent by every district in the state and how those districts perform.

"The research on the relationship between money and student outcomes, money and test scores is very unclear," said Freedberg.

Their analysis shows there is no substantial correlation between how much a school district spends and its academic performance index, which is based on student test scores and other academic measures.

"Basically, what we found was that the state of California for many years has been trying to equalize spending among school districts around the state and what we found was that big differences still remain," said Freedberg.

Last year, California schools spent an average of $8,452 to educate each student. That figure includes money from local, state, and federal sources, including one-time stimulus funds. But some districts get much more than others, creating huge ranges in funding. For instance, Sausalito-Marin City School District spent nearly $33,949 per student. Just across the bay in San Francisco it's $9,715, in Milpitas just $7,310, and Sebastopol $8,809.

"Our current school finance formula is has just built up over the years without any rationality to it," said Michael Kirst, president of the State Board Of Education.

Kirst is the governor's go to guy for education. He served the governor during his first term in the 1970s and is surprised to see how little has changed since he was last in office.

"We just added bells and whistles and more and more programs, and more and more complexity, and tweeked it, and it sort of ends up as pretty much as a flat grant," said Kirst.

Kirst is among those who say things have got to change. He says districts need to extend class days and invest in technology. To do that, they'll need money.

"We're losing a generation of children each year that aren't getting the quality of education that they need because of funding," said De La Vega.

A study released in January by national publication "Education Week" ranks California 43rd in the nation in spending per pupil. Several bills are currently working their way to through the state legislature to address the disparities in school funding. For more on the California Watch investigation or to look up how much your school district gets, check out the links above or check out this Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel

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