Dan Walters

Opinion: New school money kills old excuses

Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised 2015-16 budget sharply increases spending on California’s 6-plus million elementary and high school students.

He estimates that local property taxes, state aid and federal funds will raise K-12 spending to $83 billion, or something north of $13,000 per pupil. Most of it is devoted to Brown’s “Local Control Funding Formula,” which provides extra money to school districts with large numbers of poor and/or “English-learner” students.

More than half of our school kids fall into that category and the extra money – in theory, at least – will help close the “achievement gap” between them and their more affluent white and Asian American classmates.

Coincidentally, as Brown unveiled his education-centric budget, a coalition headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell released a report on high school graduation rates, and California didn’t fare too well.

California’s 2013 graduation rate, 80.4 percent, is a full percentage point below the national rate and 9.6 points behind the coalition’s goal of 90 percent by 2020.

Those who rationalize California’s persistently low levels of academic achievement, as measured by graduation rates and national test scores – especially the California Teachers Association – usually blame a supposed lack of money.

But with the recent money injections from Sacramento, that rationale weakens.

Over the last few years, per-pupil spending has risen by about 50 percent and is now – although state-to-state comparisons are tricky – something over the national average.

What makes the rationale even weaker is that graduation rates show absolutely no correlation with spending, and that syndrome is most evident in viewing California vis-à-vis archrival Texas.

Texas is far lower in per-pupil spending on its 5 million K-12 students. In fact, it is among the nation’s lowest, according to rankings for 2013-14 by the National Education Association, CTA’s national affiliate. And, like California, Texas’ student population is more than 50 percent Latino with very similar levels of poverty.

Nevertheless, Texas’ 2013 high school graduation rate is 88 percent, one of the nation’s highest and just shy of the 90 percent goal.

The same disconnect between money and achievement is evident elsewhere. New York, for example, is one of the nation’s highest per-pupil spenders, but has a graduation rate several points lower than California’s.

New Jersey matches New York in spending but has a much higher graduation rate. Utah is at the bottom in spending but is above average in graduation. Oregon is above average in spending but dead last in graduation.

Obviously, there is more to the achievement equation than just money, yet the political debate in and around the Capitol always begins and ends with money.

Here’s an idea: California should swallow its anti-Texas bias and spend some time figuring out why it succeeds where California lags.