Lack of money isn’t California’s problem

California’s rate of education spending continues its rapid escalation but expected increases in performance remain lagging. While taxpayers are doing their job, politicians, education bureaucrats, and teacher unions aren’t doing theirs.

The 40-year-old myth that Proposition 13 gutted education spending was never true to begin with, despite the progressive narrative, but now it has been exposed as utter fantasy. According to the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics, in inflation-adjusted constant dollars, per-pupil spending in California for public elementary and secondary schools rose from $5,675 in 1969-70, to $7,377 in 1979-80, to $9,121 in 1989-90. For 2017-18, the most recent year for which statistics are available, per-pupil spending for K-12 public schools was $13,129, the highest ever.

As Reason Foundation’s Christian Barnard highlighted recently in these pages, “inflation-adjusted education spending in California grew by a massive 44.03% between 2013 and 2019 — the fastest growth among any state in the nation including the District of Columbia during that period.” That’s made us 17th in the nation in per-pupil K-12 spending.

So no, California’s schools aren’t hurting for cash as the foes of Prop. 13 would like you to believe. What California’s schools are hurting for is accountability. And as two recent news items show, it starts at the top.

One example is a story reported by POLITICO about the questionable hiring of Daniel Lee, California’s first superintendent of equity. The state job, which pays a salary of up to $179,832, originated as a foundation-funded position paid for by a $700,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. In July 2020, following the protests over the death of George Floyd, Lee went on the state payroll as a deputy superintendent for the California Department of Education. The purpose of the hire was to ensure the success of children of color in California.

The only problem was that Lee lives and works in Pennsylvania. Politico reported that he “owns a Pennsylvania-based psychology firm and is president of the New Jersey Psychological Association’s executive board,” but his resume shows “no prior experience in California or relationships with school districts in the state.”

So how did he get hired for a six-figure-salary state job in California? Lee is a longtime close friend of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and was even in Thurmond’s wedding. Perhaps it was the revelation that public school students would be learning more about cronyism than equity that precipitated Lee’s sudden decision to resign just last week.

Another example of our leaders’ unwillingness to be held accountable for education dollars reaching students is in the state’s pension systems. While California made modest reforms in 2013, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System is only 66% funded, with $100 billion in unfunded liabilities on the books. And, if President Biden gets his way, it is likely to get worse.

The Biden administration is withholding access to $12 billion in federal public transit funding unless California upends those aforementioned pension reforms. A letter from the Department of Labor says that California’s Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act (PEPRA), “continues to interfere with the collective bargaining process regardless of the specific terms of workers’ collective bargaining agreements now in existence.”

The move is reminiscent of a similar attempt by the Obama administration to gut PEPRA. The White House eventually lost in court but not before California temporarily exempted transit workers from the pension reforms. That could happen again, as would the calls by other bargaining units to be exempted as well.

If that were to happen, we’d see an even greater share of the taxpayers’ money diverted away from public services to cover pension debt. California has the money to properly fund our schools, it’s how the dollars are spent that’s the problem.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.