California can’t have the best schools in the nation if it continues to spend among the least in the nation on our students. We were once among the top 10 states in the nation in per-pupil funding and are now 41st12, despite having the highest rate of childhood poverty, and the largest number of English Learners. To serve all these students well, we must be among the top states in the country in per-pupil funding. Of course, money alone is not the answer, and we need to pair additional dollars with smart spending on high-impact programs and services.
Like most of the important work in our public schools, getting to among the top states in funding will take some time, but we need to make the commitment, and take the necessary actions to get there. In addition to new dollars, we will need to use every dollar we currently have as wisely as we can, and bring great transparency to education funding to demonstrate that we are being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
A public education is an important value of our state; it is enshrined in the state’s constitution. But without adequate funding and support, that commitment rings hollow. This will be a critical focus, as we need to adequately fund our schools to carry out many of the strategies necessary for our schools to be the best.
As a starting point on increasing funding for public schools, we need to bring much more transparency to how schools and school districts spend their money to build the public’s confidence and trust. With greater transparency, the public will both have greater trust that existing dollars are being used well, and they will also see just how underfunded our schools are, on a per-pupil basis.
Our school districts should post accessible financial information online in a consistent, user-friendly format, and report how new dollars are translating into results for kids. Our county offices of education can support reporting that demonstrates which dollars are ending up in the classroom, and which are funding the bureaucracy. This kind of transparency will help the public better understand the need for additional funds. We can also use this type of reporting to identify which districts are most effective about maximizing dollars to the classrooms, and convene other districts to learn from those practices.
More Money for the Classroom
With greater transparency into how our schools are being funded, we’ll have greater visibility into dollars that are reaching the classroom, and those that are being spent outside of it. The state can support schools in the effort to drive as many dollars to the classroom as possible by providing schools with greater flexibility from the California Education Code. That body of regulations is very prescriptive, and causes many schools and districts to dedicate unnecessary sums of money to compliance and bureaucracy, rather than to classrooms, programs, and services for students.
The California Department of Education can also help spread best practices among counties and districts that streamline central office operations, develop partnerships that create cost savings at-scale, and help schools put more of their funds where they can do the most good: the classroom.
Addressing Long-Term Liabilities
Another growing challenge with maximizing the dollars that are available for the classroom is the unfunded pension liability. The current unfunded liability for the California State Teacher Retirement System (CalSTRS) stands at nearly $100 billion, and the most recent legislation on this topic has shifted more of the financial responsibility from the state to local school districts13. Whereas districts had been contributing 8.25% of payroll to pensions, they currently contribute 14.43%, which will gradually increase to 19.1% by 202014. With our schools already underfunded, this has an ever-increasing issue, consuming a significant portion of funding increases.
The current situation is not good for students, employees, or pensioners. The pension funds currently do not have the capital to pay what is owed to current and future retirees, and schools have less and less money to pay current employees, and to provide programs and services to students.
There is clearly no easy solution to such an enormous problem, but it first requires that our elected leaders take ownership of it, and prioritize it. We must quickly bring together political leaders, fiscal experts, labor leaders, education leaders, and others to develop a long-term solution to this issue. We must also build public understanding of how problematic the current situation is for our students, employees, and pensioners. It is time for us to come together and find a path forward to this very complex issue.
A Bigger Piece of the Pie for Education
California’s public schools can be the best in the nation, but they need to be a top priority, and that includes being a top priority in our budget. While education makes up the largest share of the state’s General Fund, spending in other policy areas, such as incarceration, has increased at a faster rate in recent decades. This needs to change.
Our state leaders need to review the budget and identify areas where the better investment would be in public education. This is perhaps most apparent when we consider the state’s investment in Corrections, which has increased dramatically over the years. Not only would some of that money be better spent on education, but there are also numerous studies which demonstrate that larger investments in education mean lower incarceration costs down-the-line.
Reallocating any amount of money in our budget is very difficult, given the entrenched special interests that exist in every area of public policy spending. Irrespective of the difficulty, however, the state has a responsibility to our children and to taxpayers to make these challenging decisions, and to pass a budget that is truly reflective of our state’s values.
New Funding for Public Schools
We need to look closely at all revenue options and make the necessary changes to our tax structure to fully fund our classrooms. Over time, some revenue increases will be necessary to fully fund our public schools. The governor, legislature, state superintendent, labor, business leadership, and others need to look comprehensively at our state’s revenue and tax structure to identify which taxes and policies need to be changed and over what time frame to get our schools to among the top states in per-pupil funding in the country. Leading this effort will be a top priority. Below are a few of the strategies we should pursue as potential ways to bring new revenue to our public schools:
- Revisit our tax structure. The governor, legislature, state superintendent, labor, business leadership, and others need to look comprehensively at our state’s revenue and tax structure to identify which taxes and policies need to be changed and over what time frame to fully fund our classrooms.
- Lower the voter threshold for passing local school taxes from two-thirds to 55%, to be on par with that of school bonds. There should be parity between these two types of ballot measures, as it doesn’t make sense that schools can raise the revenue they need to build a classroom, but not to pay more to the teacher inside of it. Local communities need greater flexibility when it comes to determining whether to levy these sorts of assessments to support local educational priorities.
- Partner with philanthropic organizations to help fund innovative educational opportunities. With the right plan for our public schools and the right state leadership, we can build momentum among philanthropists to invest in a public education innovation fund. Such a fund can be used to jumpstart innovative new pilot projects in our local school districts. While this funding will be small relative to the overall state budget for public education, it can help spark and study creative endeavors, and help the state decide which to scale.
- Lead advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C., to protect against any of the proposed federal budget cuts to education programs, such as those that help train teachers, or expand after-school opportunities. And if Washington D.C. cuts the budget for public education, California should quickly make up for those dollars at the state level.
Fund Our Schools Equitably
We must adequately fund all of our schools. We also must ensure that we provide our highest needs students with the additional resources they need to be successful. As discussed extensively here, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) is a critically important policy that has the capacity to make our public schools far more equitable. Beyond raising the baseline of funding and preserving the existing LCFF policy, we should consider expanding LCFF to include other classifications of high-needs students, as well. You can read more about our plans to strengthen the Local Control Funding Formula here.
Launch a Marketing Campaign around our Public Schools
To get the increases in funding for public schools that will be needed in California, we will likely need to raise the overall awareness about the situation in California’s public schools and build positive momentum around making California’s public schools the best in the country. One way to do this is to launch a large statewide marketing campaign around the importance of our public schools and the need to fully fund our schools. Most Californians don’t know how low California’s per pupil funding is, especially relative to other states. Many Californians seem to have forgotten how important public schools were to their lives and how important public schools are to a thriving state. We need to change this. We hope to partner with media and Internet companies to run a multi-year marketing campaign to build awareness of the funding issues facing our public schools and to build excitement among Californians to prioritize supporting our schools. Marketing a public policy issue is not a new idea. The federal government invests heavily in marketing the military and California is currently investing millions of dollars to market Covered California. We need to do the same for public schools.
12Fensterwald, John. “How Does California Rank in per-Pupil Spending? It All Depends.” EdSource, EdSource, 28 Feb. 2017, edsource.org/2017/how-does-california-rank-in-per-pupil-spending-it-all-depends/577405.
1313 Respaut, Robin. “CalSTRS Unfunded Liability Grows under New Returns Expectation.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 30 Mar. 2017, www.reuters.com/article/us-california-pensions-calstrs/calstrs-unfunded-liability-grows-under-new-returns-expectation-idUSKBN17204B.
14Cal. Ed. Code § 22950.5(a)