California School Spending Goes Up but Test Scores Don’t
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California School Spending Goes Up but Test Scores Don’t

Parents deserve the right to choose the best schools for their children

Since 1970, spending on K-12 education has increased by 80 percent in California, and, nationally, it has tripled in inflation-adjusted dollars. However, the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” show no national score improvements for high school seniors in reading and math, and little progress for the country’s students over the past decade.

The results make it clear there is no relationship between increasing school spending and increasing academic performance. California has been a particularly dismal example of this trend.

In real inflation-adjusted dollars, California spends $27 billion more a year than it did in 1970, when the current National Assessment of Educational Progress exam began.

In 2013, California’s fourth-graders ranked 47 of 50 states in both math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. California’s eighth-graders performed only slightly better, ranking 45th in math and 42nd in reading last year.

In addition, the state’s NAEP scores show that the achievement gap separating white students from their black and Latino peers is larger than the national average. For example, in 2013 the achievement gap in reading between white and black 4th-graders was 30 points – more than the national average and a wider gap since the 2011 NAEP exam.

That achievement gap helps explain why the American Civil Liberties Union recently sued school districts in Compton and Los Angeles on behalf of kids in low-income schools.

“Something as basic as learning time – real learning time – is disproportionately distributed to kids as a function of their ZIP Code,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California.

The kids attending the schools named in the lawsuit generate per-pupil funding for their districts and schools, but the students are often warehoused in “service” classes where they receive no actual instruction with large class sizes and long-term substitutes.

Gov. Jerry Brown has argued that a major shift in education funding through the new Local Control Funding Formula, which offers school districts more control over spending and less regulation at the district level, will help remedy education inequities outlined in the lawsuit.

Gov. Brown’s proposed budget for fiscal 2014-15, which earmarks $4.5 billion for the local formula, is a small step in the right direction, but it stops short of allowing the money to follow children to their schools. School principals deserve decision-making authority over their school’s resources so they can better target funding to instructional goals at the school level. Parents deserve purchasing power in public schools and the right to choose the best schools for their children. If their neighborhood school is failing, or simply a poor fit for their child, the student should be free to go elsewhere.

Next year, California will spend more than $60 billion on K-12 education, but it’s clear the state doesn’t need to spend more. It needs to spend smarter.

Rather than increase school administrators and central office employees, California should decentralize education by focusing on school-level autonomy for principals and embracing funding models where funding always follows the child to the school of his or her parents’ choice.

We now have decades of evidence that sending more and more money to public schools hasn’t improved results. Giving parents and students the ability to choose their own schools could provide a badly needed jolt of accountability and improvement.

Lisa Snell is director of education at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.