By Heather Rose, research fellow, Public Policy
Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Riverside
Press-Enterprise on February 19, 2005
It may seem obvious that school funding should reflect prices, budgets,
student needs and academic performance goals, but this has not been California's
practice in recent years. In response to a series of court decisions and state
ballot initiatives, the current school finance system allocates revenue
according to formulas based on past budgets and a complicated array of programs.
Since 1988, Prop. 98 has determined California spending on K-12 education and
community colleges. In its simplest terms, Prop. 98 has sought to maintain per
pupil spending at its 1986-87 level with adjustments for growth in real per
However, what appeared to be a simplification and a guarantee of adequate
school funding has proven to be neither. Although Prop. 98 appears simple on the
surface, it includes many details that are extremely difficult to understand,
much less implement. A series of contingencies, most of them added to adjust to
difficult economic times, make its budget provisions virtually incomprehensible.
Furthermore -- and perhaps most importantly -- Prop. 98 did not provide the
stable or more generous funding its proponents had intended.
Prop. 98 passed in 1988. Even though spending per pupil essentially matched
the levels required by the proposition during the 1990s, spending per pupil in
California actually declined relative to spending per pupil in the rest of the
Two factors help explain this: During the first half of the 1990s, California
experienced a more severe decline in state and local revenue per pupil than
other states, and during the second half of the decade, California experienced a
much larger rise in the number of students per capita. By 1999-2000, California
schools were spending 9 percent less per pupil relative to the rest of the
United States. Because of the higher cost of resources in California, lower
per-pupil spending translated into significantly fewer tangible resources such
as teachers, counselors, and librarians.
What if Prop. 98 had never passed? Given the high priority that California
voters place on education, it is hard to believe the Legislature would have
allocated even less to schools with or without the requirements of the measure
-- making the spending guarantee largely irrelevant.
The problem with Prop. 98 is that it has focused the Legislature's attention
on satisfying complicated mandates and distracted it from the fundamental
question: What resources are necessary for students to meet the state's academic
Recent legislation indicates that policy-makers are willing to consider new
approaches to funding education. In September 2002, AB 2217 called for the
creation of a Quality Education Commission charged with developing a quality
education model -- essentially lists of school resources needed for the "vast
majority" of California's students to meet the state's academic standards.
Designing such a model is a formidable but worthy task.
The greatest challenge in determining what adequate school funding should be
is the lack of clear, scientific evidence about the effect school resources
really have on student achievement.
We should rely on the opinions of experts, those with experience in the
trenches, to provide a reasonable picture of the resources a well-functioning
Ideally, the model would not be a prescription of how every school should
Rather, it would provide a concrete picture of how a particular funding
level would translate into an actual school -- much the way a model home
provides an idea of what a certain budget can afford in a new housing
Given a series of models and their likelihood of achieving student success,
the commission, the Legislature and the public could judge the relative costs
and benefits of each. There may be disagreement about whether the additional
costs of a particular model justify the increase in expected student success,
but a quality education model could help clarify the decision-making process.
In the end, the decision is a value judgment made by the Legislature as it
sets the budget for public school education.
If passed, the governor's reorganization proposal would eliminate the Quality
Education Commission. If this elimination occurs, the commission's purpose
should not be lost.
Reassessing how much California ought to spend on schools based on a quality
education model could help establish a target for public school revenue that
would serve as an alternative to the Prop. 98 guarantee.
This alternative would be based on real resources and costs, instead of an
extrapolation of past revenue levels and an impossibly complex formula.
Prop. 98 has allowed the state to fund education on autopilot, without
addressing the question of what schools need to get the job done.
The time has come to address that question.