Rewarding failure in the K-12 system

California spends a lot on education. Ever since the passage of Proposition 98 in 1988, which guarantees to education a minimum of 40% of the general fund, per-pupil spending on K-12 has risen faster than any other category of state appropriations. And yet, for all that new money, the state’s education monopoly continues its history of failure to deliver a quality product.

Just last month, this column cited the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics, showing that in 2017-2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available, per-pupil spending for the state’s K-12 public schools was $13,129 in inflation-adjusted 2019-20 dollars, the highest ever. Measured in the same constant dollars, per-pupil spending was $9,594 in 1999-2000.

California is quickly rising in the ranks in spending according to multiple metrics and we are now at least 17th highest in the United States. And many of these statistics are pre-pandemic, before the state plowed even more money into the system.

Where it excels in spending money, California lags in educational outcomes due to a clear hostility to meaningful education reforms. For decades, reformers have unsuccessfully advocated for more school choice, merit pay for teachers, advancement based on merit rather than seniority and the ability to fire bad teachers including some credibly accused of crimes against children.

The “reforms” coming out of the union-dominated Legislature will only make matters worse. The latest iteration of this is Senate Bill 830 by Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, that would change the way schools are funded. Under current law, schools get financial support based on a formula that includes average daily attendance. This bill would eliminate daily attendance from the formula, and with it the financial incentive for school personnel to attempt to get students in the building.

This, mind you, comes after the state already froze funding to pre-pandemic levels to paper over historic declines in enrollment across the state these last two years.

But according to supporters of SB 830, the current system is unfair because it punishes low-income districts that have higher rates of absenteeism and truancy. It would seem to a rational person that, if a school is having a problem with absenteeism and truancy, it would be better to address those problems directly as opposed to hiding the problems and rewarding those schools with more money for fewer students.

As evidenced by the teachers’ unions’ hesitancy to return to the classroom, especially in the Los Angeles Unified School District, it is not a good idea to give teachers’ unions a financial incentive to reduce their workload by rewarding districts with high truancy rates.

This is just the latest example of California lawmakers applying a counterproductive solution to a problem, and their reflexive tendency to throw good money after bad.

We hope that those educators in well-performing schools where teachers and administrators work with students and parents to incentivize attendance push back against this proposal.

Schools should reward success, not failure. Our educational dollars should be funding students, not systems. And, if our public school system can’t fulfill its core mission, educating the next generation of Californians, maybe our education dollars should follow our students to a school that will – like a charter school or a private school.

Keep that in mind as two school-choice initiatives gather signatures in the coming months.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.