To show what California values, look how it spends on schools

California’s budget would show an undervaluing of the state’s students

By Wesley Smith

A community activist once publicly chided me, “Don’t tell me what you value; show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” She taught me a priceless lesson that day: How we allocate our resources is a clear representation of our actual, not merely professed, values.

A quick glance at my personal budget would demonstrate a commitment to my family, prioritizing post-graduate degrees for my children, a bias toward Whole Foods, a preference for red table wine and a love for USC football.

A little deeper dive into California’s budget would demonstrate an alarming under-valuing of California’s more than 6.2 million public school students. California is one of the most diverse states in the nation. We have the highest number of English-language learners in the country (13 percentage points higher than the national average), and are one of the 10 states with the highest percentage of students qualified for free or reduced price lunch (6 percentage points higher than the national average). However, while we have significant needs, we also have significant resources. California is the fifth largest economy in the world, and our gross domestic product is the highest in the nation. Why, then, is California 43rd in the nation in per-pupil spending? Why, given our diversity and needs, are we 45th in pupil-teacher ratio, 47th in pupil-administrator ratio, and 48th in pupil-adult ratio while leading the nation in annual cost of inmate incarceration? Clearly, our priorities are askew.

California’s achievement gaps are more accurately defined as access and opportunity gaps. The Association of California School Administrators’ (ACSA) equity allies at The Education Trust-West have presented powerful research on these gaps in “Black Minds Matter” and “The Majority Report.” Due to a lack of access to college preparatory and rigorous math and science classes, fewer than half of Black and Latino 12th graders graduate meeting the A-G requirements necessary for eligibility at University of California and Cal State University campuses, and they have less access to resources like guidance counselors and labs. These gaps are not exacerbated by critical underfunding, they are caused by it.

Some politicians argue that the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) eliminated these inequities. While the implementation of the LCFF was a step toward a more equitable distribution, it did not grow the pot of available funding. In fact, the LCFF sought to restore us to 2007–08 funding levels when California ranked 23rd in the nation in per-pupil spending. Because existing investments in public education are not good enough, ACSA and the California School Boards Association are working with our allies to explore the feasibility of a ballot measure in 2020 that will significantly increase California’s per-pupil spending. In doing so, we can provide the resources and opportunities necessary to eliminate the access and achievement gaps.

California can and must do better. We must hold on to the spirit of the LCFF while also growing the pot. We must put California back in the top 5 in per-pupil spending. And we must stop using our students for campaign slogans and start prioritizing their academic needs and futures.

Wesley Smith EdD ’05 is Executive Director of the Association of California School Administrators, the largest school leadership group in the nation.