ɫ̳

Skip to content
Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho and California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond tour a Universal Transitional Kindergarten (UTK) classroom at Van Deene Avenue Elementary STEAM Academy in Torrance on Friday, May 26, 2023.  UTK ensures that every four-year-old in Los Angeles will have access to early Kindergarten instruction two years earlier than the State’s mandated timeline.
(Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)
Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho and California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond tour a Universal Transitional Kindergarten (UTK) classroom at Van Deene Avenue Elementary STEAM Academy in Torrance on Friday, May 26, 2023. UTK ensures that every four-year-old in Los Angeles will have access to early Kindergarten instruction two years earlier than the State’s mandated timeline. (Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)
Author
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

Public school advocacy groups often claim California’s public schools are underfunded. “California is the eighth largest economy in the world but continues to rank well below the national average in per-student funding,” says the California Teachers Association website.

In recent years, however, some of these accusations have softened because they are increasingly wrong or difficult to defend. 

Compared to all 50 states, California has had the ninth-fastest growth in education funding over the last two decades. It now ranks 17th in the nation in per-student spending, well above the national average. California’s students also made notable academic progress during this period. 

While it’s easy to argue that large spending increases are the primary driver of student achievement gains, the real explanation is more complicated.

According to a new Reason Foundation, California’s inflation-adjusted K-12 education funding grew from $12,471 per student in 2002 to $16,934 per student in 2020, a 35.8% growth rate that ranked ninth highest in the United States.

Over a similar period, California students made significant gains in math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called the Nation’s Report Card. From 2003 to 2019, the state’s 4th-grade NAEP reading scores increased by 11 points (+5.3%), ranking second in the country in growth rate. The state’s 4th-grade math scores rose by seven points (+3.2%), ranking 16th in improvement during that time. California’s 8th-grade NAEP reading scores also increased by eight points (+3.1%), ranking first in the nation in growth, while its 8th-grade math scores grew by nine points (+3.2%), the eighth-best improvement.

These results set California apart from other states that have seen little improvement in student achievement despite significant increases in education funding from 2002 to 2020. New York, which leads the nation in per-student funding and funding growth, saw almost no improvement in NAEP scores and declined by three points in 4th-grade reading and 4 points in 8th-grade reading.

Washington, which grew education funding at a higher rate than California and ranked fifth nationally in per-student revenue growth, was largely stagnant on the NAEP from 2003 to 2019.

These other state case studies complicate the narrative that more education spending reliably boosts student achievement. So, what else can help explain California’s progress?

Most notably, California has increased public school choice. It has one of the largest charter school sectors in the country, with over 1,300 charters serving 11.7 percent of the state’s public school population. 

According to Stanford University’s Center for Research on Student Outcomes, students in California charters outperform similar students in traditional public schools in reading and math. Since 2000, California’s charter school population has nearly quadrupled—meaning that charter growth has likely driven some of the gains in student achievement over the period examined in Reason Foundation’s study.

Another possible driver of California’s NAEP gains is the state’s relatively streamlined and flexible funding formula. Adopted in 2013, California’s Local Control Funding Formula emphasizes channeling greater resources toward higher-need students and allowing for local flexibility. This contrasts with the more restrictive and complex funding formulas of states like New York and Washington.

California’s NAEP results also shouldn’t be overstated.

Notwithstanding the strong growth, the state’s 4th and 8th-grade students still rank within or near the bottom 10 states in all testing categories examined. Additionally, the state’s NAEP outcomes slipped after the COVID-19 pandemic—albeit less so than most other states—and achievement gaps based on race and income have widened since the onset of the pandemic.

For California’s students to recover and continue making progress, state leaders need to go deeper than calling for more money. Examining the expansion of the school choice and local control policies that had student achievement trending upward before COVID-19 would be an excellent place to start.

Christian Barnard is assistant director of education reform at Reason Foundation and co-author of the new study, “

More in Opinion