California Needs Better Schools, Not Expensive Ones


California Needs Better Schools, Not Expensive Ones

Parents should have a chance to vote with their feet by implementing school choice programs that allow students and parents to choose the public schools they believe are best for them.

California Gov. Jerry Brown just signed the state’s $171 billion budget, but voters will have a chance to weigh in on even more state spending during the November election. One likely ballot measure would extend Proposition 30’s tax increases, which passed in 2012 and are supposed to expire at the end of 2018.

The Prop. 30 tax hikes mostly go to education spending, so it’s not a surprise the ballot initiative to extend them is supported by the California Teachers Association, which is already sounding scary alarm bells warning of a looming education catastrophe should the tax hikes fail to pass. “California’s schools and colleges are still recovering from the severe economic downturn that slashed education funding, and the governor’s message today was very clear that unless we pass the ballot initiative to maintain the income tax rates on California’s wealthiest, the state faces a $4 billion deficit and a $4 billion cut to education,” CTA President Eric Heins cautioned voters.

A primary justification cited by the CTA and others is that California ranks among the lowest-spending states in the country when it comes to per-pupil spending on education. According to Education Week’s 2016 Quality Counts study, California ranks 46th in per-pupil expenditures after adjusting for regional cost differences. But upon closer examination, such rankings paint a woefully misleading picture.

First, it would be absurd to judge a state, school or business based solely on its spending. For California’s public schools, the end goal is not to spend as much as money as possible, but rather to maximize student outcomes while effectively employing tax dollars.

Unfortunately, California’s students are lagging in achievement. Recent 4th and 8th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress scores show that California is among the lowest-performing states in math and reading. And despite the fact that California’s per-pupil expenditures were reduced by nearly $1,400 between 2008 and 2013, the state’s NAEP test scores actually improved during that time.

Unlike many things where spending is a reliable indicator of quality, such a relationship does not exist in the realm of public education. This is best illustrated by the weak correlation between NAEP results and per-pupil expenditures. For example, New York ranks third-highest in adjusted spending, yet its 8th grade reading scores are just 33rd overall. And despite being dead last in spending, Utah ranks an impressive ninth-best in reading.

Importantly, this phenomenon is also observed when differences in demographics are accounted for. Economically disadvantaged students from low-spending states such as Florida and Kentucky consistently outperform their peers in higher-spending states such as Connecticut and New Jersey on NAEP exams.

In their book “Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America’s Public Schools,” school finance experts Eric Hanushek and Alfred A. Lindseth conclude, “After hundreds of studies, it is now generally recognized that how money is spent is much more important than how much is spent.”

Californians know this all too well. A textbook example is the state’s class-size reduction efforts, which spent billions of dollars on student-to-teacher ratios that research has failed to link to demonstrable improvements in student achievement.

Taxpayers should be skeptical of state spending claims and comparisons that have little connection to student achievement. They should instead consider two simple questions when evaluating funding decisions in November and beyond: Are the state’s current education dollars being spent productively, and would additional education dollars be spent in a manner that would actually improve student outcomes? Until taxpayers can answer both of these questions in the affirmative, they shouldn’t rush to throw more money at the state’s public schools.

Instead, California’s educational leaders would be wise to focus on eliminating wasteful spending being directed at failing programs, to replicate plans that are successfully increasing student outcomes at high-achieving schools and to push to give individual schools and principals more control over how they spend per-pupil funding.

Instead of just voting on potential tax increases, they should give parents a chance to vote with their feet by implementing school choice programs that allow students and parents to choose the public schools they believe are best for them.

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