A Short Primer on Per-Pupil Spending
| State Per-Pupil Spending | District Per-Pupil
Spending | Conclusion
End Notes | About the Authors
One of the most contentious
issues in education is the debate over per-pupil spending. In California, many education
officials have publicly lamented the states supposedly low level of per-pupil
spending. Yet, as in the debate over the states dropout rate, where the numbers used
by the California Department of Education (CDE) were misleadingly underestimated, the
per-pupil-spending figures used by CDE and other officials are also low and misleading.
State spending on K-12 education is guided by the
requirements of Proposition 98, the 1988 voter-approved state constitutional amendment
that established a minimum funding level for K-12 schools and community colleges. Prop. 98
K-12 education funding is calculated as the sum of State General Fund dollars allocated by
state government to K-12 public schools plus local property tax revenues devoted to
schools. In 1999-00, the Prop. 98 education funding total is estimated to be $33.6
Although the Prop. 98 spending total is commonly used
to describe California education spending, there are many other sources of education
funding that do not make it into the Prop. 98 calculation. For example, the federal
governments 1999-00 contribution of nearly $4.4 billion to education spending in
California isnt counted, even though it accounts for 10 percent of total K-12
revenues. Big-ticket items included in this federal contribution: approximately $1 billion
in Title I money for poor and disadvantaged students, $513 million for special education,
and $129 million for class size reduction.
Also omitted are hundreds of millions of dollars in
state and local funds allocated annually to pay for school capital costs, i.e. debt
service on state and local school construction bonds. This omission is curious given that
every time a state or local school construction bond makes the ballot, supportive
politicians and education officials always claim that a vote for the bond is a vote for
childrens education. How, they ask, can Johnny or Jenny learn if he or she is
sitting in a run-down overcrowded classroom? Yet, once those bonds are approved, the
annual cost of those bonds is not included in how much California spends to educate Johnny
In addition, $786 million in State Lottery money, $2.6
billion from various local fund sources, and $65 million from various other state fund
sources are not counted in calculating 1999-00 Prop. 98 K-12 funding.
All these uncounted education revenue sources add up to
about $10.7 billion. Add this amount to the $33.6 billion in Prop. 98 K-12 funding and one
gets a total of $44.3 billion in total K-12 revenues in California. This amounts to more
than a 10-percent increase over the $40.1 billion of total revenues devoted to K-12 in
State Per-Pupil Spending
When Governor Gray Davis signed the state
budget, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, "Although the amount spent
per pupil will rise by $274 to $6,025, state spending remains far lower than the national
average of $7,583 in the 1999-2000 school year."1 The states per-pupil spending figure, however, is misleading.
The official per-pupil spending rate of $6,025 cited by
the Chronicle is derived by dividing Prop. 98 K-12 revenues (i.e., the sum of state
General Fund dollars for K-12 education plus local property tax contributions) by the
average daily number of students attending school in California (otherwise known as
average daily attendance or ADA). As noted above, however, Prop. 98 revenues ($33.6
billion) grossly understate the true amount of K-12 funding.
If one were instead to divide total 1999-00 K-12
revenues (which includes federal money, lottery money, and other funds) of $44.3 billion
by the states average daily attendance of just under 5.6 million students, one would
get a per-pupil funding figure of $7,937, nearly $2,000 higher than the CDE estimate.
To be fair, not all money for education is
actually designated for K-12 students. Some of these funds are used for adult education,
adult vocational education, and pre-kindergarten child-development programs. At the time
of the preparation of this paper, the figures available for these spending categories were
contained only in the 1999-00 requested budget not in the eventually approved final
budget. The requested budget had somewhat lower figures than what was eventually approved
by the Governor and the Legislature. Thus, the total revenues in the requested budget for
1999-00 was estimated to be $42.8 billion rather than the eventual $44.3 billion.
Subtracting the known adult education, adult vocational education and child development
dollars from the $42.8 billion figure gives a total K-12 spending figure of $40.6 billion.
Divide $40.6 billion by the average daily attendance of 5.6 million students and one gets
a state per-pupil funding figure of $7,272.2
(See Figure 1). Thats approximately 20 percent higher than the per-pupil funding
figure of $6,025 which is given out by state officials and used by the media.3
It should also be noted that, contrary to the
popular belief that per-pupil funding has decreased since Prop. 13 (the 1978
property-tax-limitation initiative), per-pupil funding in California has actually
increased over time. For example, an American Legislative Exchange Council study
calculates that between 1976-77 and 1996-97 per-pupil funding in California in
inflation-adjusted dollars rose 27 percent.
California, thus, is not penny-pinching education as
much as some officials would have the public believe. Caution should therefore be
exercised in blaming the poor performance of schools and students in the state entirely on
the all too common complaint that not enough money is being spent on public education.
Indeed, many studies show that there is little correlation between education spending and
After examining decades of academic research,
University of Rochester Prof. Eric Hanushek, the nations leading education
economist, found that, "there is little systematic relationship between school
resources and student performance."4
The point, says Hanushek, is that "how money is spent is much more important than how
much is spent."5
In other words, no matter how much is spent on
education, unless those funds are channeled into programs that work (e.g., teacher
training emphasizing subject-matter competence, implementation of the states
rigorous academic content standards, and introducing competition into the system through
school choice), dont expect any change or improvement in California public
It should also be noted that the per-pupil
revenue funding numbers for many school districts are much higher than the statewide
figures. Figure 1 illustrates per-pupil revenue funding for representative school
districts in the 10 largest metropolitan areas in California in 1999-00. Also included is
the per-pupil revenue funding for the Sausalito Elementary School District.6 As one can see, the per-pupil
revenue funding amounts are very considerable.
For example, Oakland will have $7,933 in revenues to
spend per student, Fresno $7,994. San Jose will have revenues of $8,372 per student, Los
Angeles $9,028, and San Francisco $10,021. Most amazing, though, is the Sausalito
Elementary School District in Marin County which will have a whopping $16,555 in revenues
Despite the high revenues of these
districts, students in these districts have, for the most part, performed poorly on state
achievement tests. Table 1 lists the 1999 SAT-9 reading and math test results in grades 2,
6, 9, and 11 for the 11 districts. The SAT-9 test, which is part of the states STAR
assessment system, is a nationally normed standardized multiple-choice exam. District
scores are reported by the percentage of students who score at or above the 50th
percentile. As shown in Table 1, many of the district scores are below or well below the
50th percentile. For example, in Sausalito, where per-pupil spending is thousands of
dollars higher than the highest per-pupil-spending state, large majorities of students in
the listed grades scored below the 50th percentile.7
High funding and low test scores are not the
only problems afflicting these districts. During the data gathering, one of the co-authors
of this report encountered incompetence, obfuscation, and byzantine bureaucracy.8 Although public schools claim
that their financial records and planning documents are fully open to public inspection,
such was not always the case.
The cost accounting data needed to figure out how much
government at all levels spends on students for the current school year are virtually
non-existent. Further, the financial data needed to construct even the most basic cost
data are difficult to elicit and even harder to interpret.
Further, instead of providing the supposedly publicly
available data without question, district personnel consistently asked for justification
for the requests. San Bernardino City Unified required a form to be completed and routed
for approval before staff would send data. San Francisco Unified, which is under
investigation by the state for irregular and unorthodox financial practices, was so
unresponsive that a personal visit to its administrative offices was necessary to get
requested public data.
Even when information was supplied, it was often
incomplete. When asked about the total dollar amount of a particular programs
budget, a San Francisco County Office of Education staff member claimed that neither he
nor the programs manager knew what the total program budget was, nor could they
locate the document that contained the total program budget. San Francisco Unifieds
massive 412-page budget contained less than half the data necessary to understand costs at
the district level.
Given all these hurdles, it would be virtually
impossible for the average voter, who lacks the time to gather the required financial data
and the accounting training to interpret them, to fulfill his or her theoretical role of
holding the public schools accountable. A financial manager with Los Angeles Unified
admitted that he had been "counseled" to use financial euphemisms when speaking
about accounting matters so as to conceal or downplay what is actually going on in the
district. With a public totally uninformed about the real state of public school finances,
real accountability is illusory.
Several things are clear. First, California as a whole,
and many of its largest districts in particular, are spending more money on education than
the public has been led to believe. Yet, despite this spending, student achievement still
lags behind most of the nation. Finally, it is impossible to hope for any real
accountability when the financial data of the public schools are so inaccessible,
inaccurate, and incomprehensible. A better system is needed.
Instead of todays complex funding system which
involves a myriad of funding sources funneled through various layers of bureaucracy, a
school-choice opportunity scholarship/voucher program offers taxpayers a much simpler and
clearer approach to funding education. Under most voucher proposals, revenues to cover the
tuition at voucher-redeeming schools would normally come from only one or two
sourcesthe state and/or possibly the parentand only one thin layer of
bureaucracy at the state level would be needed to administer the program.
So far, school-choice proponents have based much of
their case on the improved student achievement of those students participating in the
limited school-choice programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland. Competition, however, also
fosters accountability. As the lack of public-school accountability revealed in this
report underscores, public education is in dire need of competition. Only through
competition will the public regain control over the public schools.
"Governor Signs School-Friendly
Budget," San Francisco Chronicle, 30 June 1999: A1.
Carl Brodt calculates that the figure
would be in the $7,500 range using the higher $44.3 billion approved budget figure and
making estimates as to the amount likely spent on adult education, adult vocational
education, and child development. See the Appendix for Mr. Brodts methodology in
calculating the state per-pupil spending figure.
As a methodological point, the $7,272
figure is based on an earlier time calculation than the $6,025 figure. The comparable
Prop. 98 funding total for the earlier time period is $32.8 billion.
Eric Hanushek, "Making
Americas Schools Work," Brookings Review, Fall 1994.
Eric Hanushek, "Measuring
Investment in Education," Journal of Economic Perspectives, Fall 1996: 9.
For an explanation of the methodology
used to calculate the district per-pupil funding levels, see the Appendix at the end of
It should be noted that although San
Franciscos test scores appear high, it has been well publicized that San Francisco
Unified has prevented potentially low-scoring students from taking the SAT-9 test.
Carl Brodt was responsible for
gathering the financial data for this report.
About the Authors
Lance T. Izumi is co-director of the Center for School
Reform at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy. Carl Brodt, a certified
management accountant, is a commercial bank vice president and treasurer of California
Parents for Educational Choice. Alan Bonsteel, M.D., is an emergency and family physician
and president of California Parents for Educational Choice.