Leveling with Louie on education funding

By Larry Sand
February 18, 2020

A recent chat with my cousin illuminates the chasm between fact and fantasy.

After a recent post in which I detailed California’s abuse of taxpayers, I got a call from my cousin Louie, an aging Hollywood screenwriter. Known as the “red sheep” of the family, he firmly believes that pouring more money into government schools would make for a more equitable world. The conversation went something like this:

Louie: (Indignant.) I am shocked that you are against spending more money on education. Our schools desperately need to improve.

Me: Well, Louie, actually the amount of money spent on education and student achievement don’t really correlate. Over the last 20 years our student’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores have barely moved as spending has steadily increased. And, over the past decade, scores for blacks have declined.

Louie: C’mon, African-Americans aren’t doing as well because our funding system is racist; poor and minority schools get a lot less dough than richer whiter districts.

Me: Wrong again, Lou. Many studies have shown that there is absolutely no difference. As researcher James Agresti writes: “Wide-ranging studies that include all education funding—like those conducted by the U.S. Department of Education (1996), Ph.D. economist Derek Neal (2006), the left-leaning Urban Institute (2008), and the conservative Heritage Foundation (2011)—have all found that school districts with higher portions of minority students spend about the same amount per student as districts with smaller portions of minorities.”

Louie: (Becoming agitated; voice rising.) Whatever! Here in California we really do need to spend more. I heard UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl say recently that we are 43rd nationally in per-pupil spending. That’s shameful!

Me: Louie, Louie, Louie. When you are trying to be factual, quoting a union boss is never a very wise idea. The latest available data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that California spends $12,143 per student, and is ranked 21st in the U.S. By the way, the state is right at the national average which is $12,201 per student. Incidentally, Florida spends about a quarter less than we Golden Staters do ($9,075 per student) and has higher test scores. And Arizona, with very similar demographics to California, spends even less than Florida and their students still do better than ours.

Louie: But…but Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula promised to empower local districts to ensure that the money would be going where it was really needed. Right?

Me: Well, that may have been the intention, but it sure hasn’t worked out that way. As Pacific Research Institute scholar Lance Izumi points out, there is no accountability. Especially in the bigger districts, the money goes for pensions and other employee benefits. For example, in 2018 the Reason Foundation calculated that in Los Angeles, “pension costs, health and welfare costs, and special education costs are projected to take up 57.5 percent of unrestricted general fund revenue (LAUSD’s main operational funding) before the district spends a single dollar to run a regular school program.” Also, California state Auditor Elaine Howle explained in a very disturbing report released in November that “there is no way to track whether money is being spent as it should.” The Legislative Analyst’s Office agrees. In a scathing analysis, released last month, it concludes “…we think it is critically important that districts be required to fundamentally rethink how they use their existing funds on an ongoing basis.”

Louie: (Now flummoxed, he tries to score on a related subject.) Well at least we don’t have to worry about voucher schemes siphoning public money here in California. That would make matters even worse!

Me: Au contraire, Cuz! Competition would shake up Sacramento’s flatulent establishment. Monopolies have no reason to improve if they’re the only game in town. The way things are now, parents of poor kids are held hostage to a system that is clearly failing them. You claim to deplore racism but you are supporting a system that actually hurts minorities.

Louie: (Now totally deflated.) So I gather you’re not gonna vote for Prop. 13, the school bond measure on the ballot in March, huh?

Me: Correctamundo, Louie! A “yes” vote would authorize $15 billion in general obligation bonds for school and college facilities. Of course we need well-maintained school buildings. To that end, voters already approved $9 billion in 2016 to build and repair schools. But now we are told that they never repaired the deteriorating water pipes and removed asbestos from classrooms. So instead of spending the state’s $21 billion surplus on upgrading school facilities and providing high quality education for our children, the governor and the legislature are wasting our money on their pet projects like the $80 billion (and counting) “train to nowhere.” Also, as San Diego tax warrior Richard Rider reminds us, California has by far the nation’s highest state income tax rate. And the highest state sales tax rate. And the highest gas tax.

Louie: But….

Me: Please vote “No” too, Lou. And, while you’re at it, maybe explain the facts of life to your “woke” Hollywood comrades. A dose of reality is just what they need.

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Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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