California Chooses Feel Good Metrics Over Meaningful Education Measures

Parents and taxpayers deserve to know how education dollars are spent at the classroom level across grade levels and subject areas in per-pupil terms.

The New Year will usher in sweeping changes to the information that California provides about its public schools. Unfortunately, the State Board of Education’s new system will make it harder to compare schools on academic achievement and won’t provide any additional information on how districts spend the funding they receive.

The good news is that parents will get access to an online dashboard of metrics highlighting 10 performance areas at schools.

“The new accountability system provides parents, educators and community members with a wealth of information, allowing them to dig deep into a variety of areas that affect student performance and more effectively hold their districts accountable,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. “It will also help educators more easily identify and assist schools and districts in need of help.”

But that’s not actually the case. The new dashboard will replace California’s Academic Performance Index, which showed how a school’s students performed on standardized tests in English and math. Many education officials complained the API was too simplistic. As a result, the new dashboard features feel good measures like parent engagement and gives them the same weight as test scores.

Some of these metrics are important, no doubt, but not as important as academic achievement. If educators wanted to provide a wider scope of key information to parents they should’ve started with how school districts spend taxpayer money.

Right now, California’s financial reporting system provides few clues as to how the nearly $72 billion in annual K-12 funding is spent, even though school districts are required to report expenditures on priority areas in their Local Control and Accountability Plans.

Research has shown that school districts frequently send some schools — often those serving low-income students — significantly fewer resources than other schools. These funding discrepancies should be easy for parents to find. But without granular data on how education funding is allocated by districts, it’s difficult to even know that this problem exists let alone hold officials accountable.

Parents can get some financial data from School Accountability Report Cards, which include a few key metrics such as per-pupil expenditures and average teacher salaries.

Other states, like Texas, provide detailed spending data on every school in the state. Stakeholders in Texas can see exactly what a school spends on various functions (instruction, school leadership and guidance counseling, for example) along with spending on programs like special education and bilingual instruction in aggregate and per-pupil terms.

Ultimately, parents and taxpayers deserve to know how education dollars are spent at the classroom level across grade levels and subject areas in per-pupil terms. This would help them ensure that school spending is aligned with priorities. But sadly, this information is so hidden, and the bureaucratic path that funding takes is so complicated, that many school district officials and principals don’t even know how all the money is spent.

If the state wants to improve accountability and transparency it should make it simple for parents to find academic achievement statistics and detailed spending numbers that are easily comparable across schools and districts.

California taxpayers deserve to know if students are making academic progress and how education dollars are spent. Modernizing, and making public, the state’s financial reporting system is where it can start.

Aaron Garth Smith is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation.