– California’s Governor Newsom, 2019
“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 the state and local level”
Inequality in public schools is an often discussed problem in the news today, but it is far from a recent development. Starting early in the development of the American public education system, it has been funded in an unequal manner that has created massive disparities in resources and the quality of education.
California is no exception to this problem and some of the state’s attempts to remedy this situation have actually made it worse. In the beginning, California’s public k-12 education system was funded in large part by local property taxes which created a system where wealthier districts were some of the best in the country, while schools in poorer neighborhoods struggled to meet even basic educational standards. After the landmark 1971 court decision Serrano v. Priest, California started to transform the way it funded education from local funding to predominately state funding. (“8.4 Prop 13 and Prop 98: Then and Now.”) Much has happened since 1971, but still today, California has very unequal funding for schools in richer and poorer districts and new solutions are needed to address the inequality.
Inequality in the California public school system has been an issue since its inception. Starting in the 1850’s all the way until the 1970’s, the vast majority of public school funding came from the local community that it served (Murray, Evans, and Schwab). During this period of time, California’s schools were, on average, some of the best in the country (Picus). However, the system of funding by local property taxes made it so that the wealthier, and therefore well-funded districts, had stellar schools while those located in poorer areas trailed well behind the national average in terms of funding and quality (Downes).
All of this began to change in 1971 with the California supreme court case Serrano v. Priest. In the court case, a California parent, John Serrano, argued that the funding of public schools by local property taxes violates the equal protection clause because students in poorer districts were not getting nearly as good of an education as those in wealthier districts. The result of this lawsuit was that the courts found that California needed to make its school funding more fair (Nordheimer). The legislature decided that to satisfy the court decision, the state would take all of the local property taxes and distribute the money more evenly (Post).
When this new means of funding was first implemented, it seemed like it was starting to make things more fair (Downs). However, less than a decade after the Serrano decision, proposition 13 was passed which severely restricted the amount of money that California could collect through property taxes. Once proposition 13 was passed, the amount of money California was spending per pupil went down suddenly and drastically. This caused the previously well-funded schools to get progressively worse without improving the funding or quality of education for the poorer ones. With all of the schools now getting lower funding, one could argue that the playing field was more level, but it is doubtful lowering the total amount of education funding in California was the desired intent of the original lawsuit.
Over time, even the possible benefit of equity has gone away because the wealthier districts have found ways to supplement the funding that they get from the state. Although not to the level before the 1970s, by the 2000s, creative methods of school funding brought back a gap in funding and quality of education in California (Picus). It’s clear that while the problem of inequitable education was identified correctly, the solutions that had been implemented resulted in, as is so often the case, unintended and undesirable consequences.
What You Need to Know About How California Funds Public Schools Today
On March 3rd of this year, California voters defeated a new proposition 13. The ironically numbered proposition would have provided $15 billion dollars of bond money to be used to fix the crumbling infrastructure that make up the schools that the students of California attend. (Pedilla) With the passage of the first proposition 13, the voters of California made clear that while they would tolerate high property taxes to fund their own children’s education, they were less comfortable funding education for other districts students. (Fishel). With the failure of the second proposition 13, the voters made it clear that this discomfort is still very much present. It has been over 40 years since California first endeavored to make its primary education system more equitable and although many things have been tried and some success has been achieved, the current state of California’s education system is no more equal and in many ways inferior to what was present before any of the changes were made.
When the first proposition 13 was passed, the amount of money available to the state for education was drastically reduced and school districts had no choice but to adjust to much lower funding (Catterall, Brizendine). At least, schools in less financially advantaged districts had no choice. In districts where the parents had more resources, they quickly found creative ways around state funding and managed to add significantly to their local school’s budgets. Indeed, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, in the 2018-2019 school year the average school received 58% of its funding from the state and 32% from local sources (Murphey, Paluch). However, that average is very misleading because some districts get significantly more funding locally than others. For example, in 2016-17, Palo Alto schools received 40% of their funds locally (“2016-2017 Palo Alto Unified School District Budget”), while Oakland received only 22% (“2017-18 1st Interim Financial Report”) and Vallejo City Unified received exactly 1% of its budget locally (“2016-17 TENTATIVE BUDGET FINANCIAL STATEMENT”). The result is that today in California, educational funding is still hugely unequal. In 2020 Palo Alto spent $18,500 per high school pupil on education (“2016-2017 Palo Alto Unified School District Budget”), while Vallejo spent $10,500. (“2016-17 TENTATIVE BUDGET FINANCIAL STATEMENT”). California has spent 40 years trying to equalize the funding of primary education, but for all that effort, in 2020, Palo Alto spends 175% of what Vallejo spends per pupil and that funding makes a huge difference. At Palo Alto Henry Gunn High School, the average SAT score is 1410, while at Oakland High and Vallejo High School the average is 1000. In terms of being ready to enter college, 90% of the students graduate from Palo Alto meet UC requirements while only 30% from Vallejo High School meet those requirements (“Henry M. Gunn High School”; “Oakland High School”; “Vallejo High School”). When using the metric of test scores and readiness for college, it’s clear that California does not currently provide a generally equal education for all its students.
According to the California Budget and Policy Center, California ranks 41st out 51 in terms of per pupil spending when that number is adjusted for the cost of providing services. It ranks 51st in terms of teachers, counselors and librarians per student (Murphey, Paluch). With this level of funding, it is fair to question whether California is being fair to any of its students in comparison to the rest of the country, but without the addition of local funding, it is the less well-off districts such as Vallejo that are suffering the most. Comparing only students who are eligible for free or reduced price school lunches, in 2019 the federal government’s National Assessment of Education Progress report found that California ranked 48th out of 50 for 4th grade reading achievement with similar results in 8th grade and for math (“State Achievement-Level Results”).
“For Now” Solution Steps
Before attempting to come up with new solutions, it is worthwhile to step back and discuss what really is the desired outcome. After the Serrano v. Priest, California tried to make education fair by capturing all the education funding and making it so that all schools received the same level of funding. But however much the state tried, local parents of means were always finding ways to supplement the meager funding. Some people are trying to make this illegal, so that no schools are allowed to supplement the state funding (Nittle). But making it so that all the schools equally receive the lowest possible level of funding might be fair in some strict sense, it doesn’t seem like the formula for a successful education system. Chronically underfunded schools also don’t seem like something one of the best educated and richest states should strive for. So instead of focusing on equal funding, my solutions will focus on the end goal of providing a quality education for every single one of California’s students.
Macro Solutions: New Ideas and Revisions
My first proposal is that the default funding model for school districts reverts back to local property taxes by default. Part of the problem with the funding in California is that the state has a formula for the minimum amount of money that it needs to spend on primary education but “one of the unintended consequences [of this] is that the legislature has treated it as both a floor and ceiling” (Picus). Each year, when the state “fully funds” education, what they mean is that they have allocated the bare minimum as allowed by law. Rich neighborhoods have demonstrated that they are willing to spend lavishly to educate their children and given the control, they will once again bring some of California’s schools to the very top of the national funding levels.
My second proposal is to make sure that poorer districts still get a great and fair education. If any district cannot fund their schools to 100% of the average district in California, it would revert back to state funding. All the local property taxes of that district will be collected by the state and the state will fund their school district at 100% of the average before state supplements. It is true, that the rich districts will get more funding than the poor districts, but it would ensure that all districts would be well funded. It’s been proven that it doesn’t work to tell parents that they can’t fund their local schools, but this method would say that they can fund your school as much as they want but when they do, they are going to be indirectly helping the less well off schools as well.
My final proposal is that Proposition 13 should be amended so that taxes used to fund education should require only a simple majority instead of two thirds. Educational funding in California is very important to the success of the state and letting local districts self fund should not require a super majority vote.
Micro Solutions: Laying the Groundwork
For these proposals to work there will have to be some accompanying micro level actions that will also need to happen. The first of these is that fiscally conservative voters will need to be convinced that supplementing economically disadvantaged districts is in the state as a whole’s best interest. The carrot to convince these voters will be that any school district that wants to self fund will be able to. The second action that will need to be taken will be to convince progressive voters that it is acceptable that the richer districts will, in the end, still be getting more funding. The arguments that can be used in this case can be that trying to make the funding exactly equal has not worked but has made it so that California has a generally poor education system where the less well off districts suffer the most. With this new proposal, every district will have enough funding to deliver a quality education and that is something that has never before been the case in California. For both of these requirements, I suggest that individuals lobby the school districts and the teacher’s union to join forces to launch an education program for the voters of California.
Do you feel like the funding for the public schools in your area is fair? Respond below in the comments!