Capitol Alert

Fact check: Is California really ranked 41st in education spending nationwide?

To the applause of education advocates around the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged Tuesday during his State of the State address that California’s spending on primary and secondary education is among the lowest in the nation.

“Seven years ago, we invested $47.3 billion in our schools. Next year, with your support, we’ll invest more than $80 billion — that includes $576 million for special education,” Newsom said.

“But it’s not enough. We’re still 41st in the nation in per pupil funding. Something needs to change. We need to have an honest conversation about how we fund our schools at a state and local level,” he said.

The poor position is no secret but it’s frequently countered with other, competing rankings on student spending. The key difference between reports that put California among the worst in the country and ones that place the Golden State somewhere in the middle is whether researchers choose to consider California’s high cost of living, experts say.

In spotlighting the lower figure it’s clear which one Newsom believes is most relevant to the state’s teachers — and it did not go unnoticed by groups like the California Teachers Association and other advocates for education spending.

“No governor in my entire career has been willing to acknowledge what California’s spending on a per-pupil basis is,” said Kevin Gordon, a veteran lobbyist who represents school districts. “For the governor to take that on and underscore it as a challenge we need to address is really significant.”


There are at least four major groups that track per student spending: the National Education Association, National Center for Education Statistics, the Census Bureau and the magazine Education Week.

The many sources make it difficult to determine which one is right and why.

A January 2018 report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which gives budget-writing lawmakers nonpartisan research, said California ranked 29th in per-student spending. The analyst’s office primarily uses data from the Census, which reported that California spent $11,495 per student in 2016.

By contrast, the California Budget and Policy Center’s list from 2017 pegged the state at 41st place. The National Education Association, a teachers’ union, also ranked California at 41st.

The Budget and Policy Center’s analysis accounts for the cost living in each state. That tends to place California at a lower spot in state rankings.

Jonathan Kaplan, a senior policy analyst with the California Budget and Policy Center, said accounting for cost of living is important because salaries — which vary by region — are often the largest expense in any education budget.

Some schools, by virtue of their location, will pay higher costs for labor and materials than others in a low cost of living state. He said there is a difference between Los Angeles and schools in the southeast? That would be an “an apples to oranges comparison,” Kaplan said.

The average teacher wage in California is $79,128, according to the union. That’s the second-highest average wage in the country. In Texas, which has fewer students but more teachers than California, educators earn $55,126.

The Budget Center’s most recent report mirrored one produced by Education Week, finding that California spent a little more than $10,000 per student — and about $2,000 less than the national average.

The state’s school budget is controlled, at least in part, by a formula voters approved with the adoption of Proposition 98. Passed in 1988, the law guarantees schools a minimum level of funding. Lobbyists like Gordon have tried for years to persuade governors and lawmakers to set aside more money for schools than required by law.

Kaplan said the state’s 41st place ranking was actually an improvement.

“After the Great Recession in roughly 2008 and 2009, there were significant reductions in state spending on K-12 education in the state,” Kaplan said. “We had fallen quite a bit behind in that post-Great Recession period and I think by 2015-2016 we had begun to improve relative to the immediate prior years.”

The Legislative Analyst’s Office on Wednesday published a new report studying Newsom’s proposed education budget. It warned the state is collecting less tax revenue than Newsom projected, which could lead to less guaranteed money for schools when lawmakers meet to refine a state budget in May and June.

“To prepare, the Legislature may want to begin identifying proposals it would be willing to reject or reduce,” the report recommends.

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Mike Finch joined The Bee in July 2018 as a data reporter after working at newspapers in Alabama and Florida. A Miami native, he has been a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors since 2012 and studied political science at Florida International University.