California education advocates talk more dollars than sense

It’s unfortunate — but nevertheless political reality — that the Capitol almost never moves beyond money in its perpetual debate over how California’s 6 million-plus public school students should be educated.

While money is certainly important, it’s just as certainly not the only factor, and likely not even the most important one, in how well students fare.

Family engagement, language barriers, popular culture, peer pressure and quality of teaching all influence outcomes that are, according to the latest national academic tests, among the nation’s worst.

The California Budget Project, a liberal group that advocates for more spending, continues the money obsession with a new report contending that public education is being woefully underfinanced.

The CBP calls it “a decade of disinvestment” that has “left public systems and programs ill-equipped to cope with the ongoing impact of the Great Recession, a growing population and an ever-more-
competitive global economy.”

The report declares that California is 46th among the states in per-pupil spending at $8,908 per year, nearly $3,000 under the national average; 47th in school spending as a percentage of personal income; 50th in the number of students per teacher, and so forth.

It’s a selective array of data. It does not, for example, include the fact that California teachers are very nearly the highest-paid in the nation.

Moreover, it paints a much darker picture than data from other sources. The Census Bureau, for instance, surveys all forms of school spending and pegs California’s per-pupil number at $11,588, just
$662 under the national average and 27th-highest in the nation, not 46th.

And it’s much higher in some big-city school systems, such as Los Angeles Unified, which has more than 600,000 students, spends $14,100 per pupil and has about a 50 percent high school dropout rate.

But even assuming the CBP’s numbers are valid, it misses a more important point. California’s state-local tax burden is one of the nation’s highest, so if schools are being shortchanged, it’s a political choice, not necessarily an overall lack of money.

We — as voters or through those we elect — chose to have the nation’s most expensive prison system, costing at least $5 billion more a year than it should, which would equate to $800 per public-school pupil.

We chose, with 12 percent of the nation’s population, to have nearly one-third of its welfare caseload, to have the nation’s lowest community-college fees and to have a very expensive public pension system.

So if we want to spend more money on schools and less elsewhere, that’s also a choice.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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