Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest budget includes $11.8 billion in increased education spending next fiscal year and the Legislative Analyst’s Office predicts that schools may receive even more money thanks to higher-than-expected tax revenue. Much of this money will be distributed through a new funding plan called the Local Control Funding Formula, which aims to get more funding to students with the greatest needs.
California school districts have a terrible track record when it comes to spending resources on their most disadvantaged students. An October 2012 report by Education Trust-West found stark funding gaps between low- and high-poverty schools in California’s 20 largest school districts. Schools with more experienced teachers and serving fewer students living in poverty received far more funding per teacher than higher-poverty schools. The study found that teachers in better-off schools earned up to $6,600 more per year than teachers in the poorest schools. For example, in Garden Grove Unified, the gap between the average teacher salary in the least disadvantaged schools and the most disadvantaged schools was $3,063. So an average elementary school with 30 teachers at a high-poverty school in Garden Grove was receiving $90,000 less than a similar low-poverty school.
In February, State Controller John Chiang requested that every county office of education, school district and charter school in California provide actual district and school level pay and benefit data for all K-12 employees so the information can be published transparently for public review. If they comply, this will provide a needed accountability check on school districts to see if they are living up to the spirit of the Local Control Funding Formula by targeting extra resources at the most disadvantaged kids.
Right now California’s public schools allocate teaching “slots” instead of funds. School districts pay teachers’ salaries, and then the district average is reported as though it pertained to individual schools, thus concealing the real differences in actual average salaries at schools. When large salary gaps exist, this is important money that is intended for, but not reaching, the state’s most disadvantaged students.
In practice, teachers’ salaries, the largest category of school expenditures, are closely connected to seniority, which also allows teachers to transfer to schools that are home to fewer disadvantaged students. Teachers tend to use seniority rights to reach schools serving more affluent communities. A Center for American Progress report found that a 10 percent increase in the rate of student poverty in a California public school is associated with a $411 drop in average teacher salary.
The bottom line is that with more money than ever going to support low-income children at the district level, it is important for the public to have data about within-school inequities and the hidden teacher salary gaps. If this money continues to follow teachers with more experience, rather than the students it is intended for, and if low-income kids continue to have less-experienced teachers because of seniority and teacher transfer rules, no amount of manipulating the funding formula at the state level will solve this problem.
If that turns out to be the case, it will be time to end seniority-based rules that perpetuate these inequities.
Lisa Snell is director of education at the Reason Foundation. This column was originally published in The Orange County Register.