Equity in California’s Public School System

California School Funding

L. Jones

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Equity in California’s Public School System

In any issue, particularly when politics are involved, there tends to be two views of a situation. The ex-ante analysis of the California State school finance system is no different. According to the “official” (and rosy) view of the current situation, the state’s school finance system has achieved adequate levels of equity. Not only is this view based on the fact that the system guarantees each school district the revenue limit to which it is entitled (at a property tax rate of one percent of assessed value), but the State also is committed to paying each district the remainder between its actual “entitlement” and the funds raised through the tax income. Additionally, the State of California also has a grant program that could also compensate for any inequities arising out of the tax system.

However, like most “realities,” the actual “on the ground” level of equity between individual districts and schools may be very different from the official view. In fact, there are several examples of analyses that point to potential points of inequity state-wide. Of course, this is only echoed by the recent filing of a lawsuit by the ACLU that charges that significant inequality occurs in schools from “poorer” (typically, urban) areas. Unfortunately, despite political rhetoric to the contrary, there is significant evidence that this is, in fact, the case.

Of course, whenever one discusses the state of school funding in the state of California, one has to consider the “given” of the situation — the controversial heritage of Proposition 13. To many, it is this law — at its most basic a shield against property taxes, that is directly responsible for much of what ails the state’s school funding system. Unfortunately for many who view this law as a direct cause of the abysmally low per-student funding within the state, it is considered to be a “given” simply due to the average Californian’s track record regarding his or her preference for lower property taxes over higher financial support for its public school system.

Thus, in consideration of this, rather unfortunate fact (or, perhaps tendency), it is usually considered more constructive (and realistic) to consider the secondary, perhaps, internal aspects of the school funding problem in order to address the question of the lack of equity between individual schools based primarily on location.

Of course, it is almost a cliche that inner-city or “urban” schools should necessarily be lacking in fundamental ways. From academic performance to levels of crime and unrest, to even condition of facilities and programs, urban schools (particularly in California), are famously, shall we say — on the rough side. But what causes this? According to many, urban schools are simply representative of the higher percentage of problems (crime, drugs, poverty, sociological differences), represented in the urban environment in general. However, one has but to lightly consider the issues of funding equity — and its gross imbalances, in order to infer that this may not be the case.

When one considers the issue of California school funding and its effects on the “equitable” distribution of funds and resources among the schools, it is essential to first have an understanding of just what law and policy makers in the state mean by the term “equity.” According to the dictionary definition of the term, “equity” refers to the state or ideal of being “just, impartial, and fair.” Although, in reference to the school setting, establishing a method of school funding that is based on “impartiality” may seem wise, it has often lead to significant problems “on the ground.”

Of course, the main reason that many take issue with the methods by which funds are collected and distributed to different schools within the state is that there are factors that the current funding system cannot address adequately. For instance, in many school districts, they are uniquely challenged by higher levels of disabled, poor, or non-native English speakers in their classrooms.

Although it may seem “equitable” to provide similar funding across the board with regard to percentage of tax-generated revenues, as well as specially allocated funds due to the percentages of these students, the current system does not adequately adjust or compensate for these factors.

For instance, according to Kristi Garrett, a writer for the California School Board Association, perhaps some schools may be compensated to a supposed “equitable” degree with regard to tax revenue and allowed adjustments from the state based on set criteria. However, consider the impact of not being able to pay enough to attract the teachers who are qualified to effectively teach in that particular school or group of schools. She writes:

To illustrate the scope of the task facing policy-makers, consider what it would take to implement the state’s academic standards in math. By grade 12, students in California’s ideal high school will have completed not only first-year algebra, but geometry, advanced algebra and statistics. The high school exit exam only requires a knowledge of beginning algebra, but that in itself is enough of a hurdle, considering that 46% of high school math teachers in 1997 did not hold a major or minor in the subject…If the teachers who don’t have majors in their subject area are disqualified under the No Child Left Behind Act, an already severe shortage of math teachers could become insuperable by the act’s deadline in 2006 (Garrett, 2003).

Given this fact, it is clear that “equitable levels” of funding based on ideal scenario models is not sufficient to address the educational needs of many students in the system. Further, this does not even address the issue that there is a reality of potential “attractiveness” vs. “unattractiveness” of a given school or district based on the challenge presented by its student body. For instance, why would the average teacher choose to work in a setting that demands significantly more work (or costly continued education/accreditation), for the same amount of pay offered in less challenging settings? Although as stated before, each school may qualify for additional funds based on unique characteristics (especially due to poor, urban, and other challenging characteristics), it does not necessarily transfer in a uniform way. This means that even if a school is slated to receive additional funds, the district can choose to allocate those funds as they see fit, perhaps missing the real issues at hand. For instance, in the case of attracting and keeping qualified (or those capable of providing true equitable education):

We’re arguing that we’re not getting the talent we need, and that we need to pay teachers at a higher level,” says Allan Odden, co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, which is working with several states in the process of developing an adequate funding formula. “So you need some labor market studies – what it would take to get and keep them – and we would also argue that you need to change the structure of teacher salary systems… so you pay teachers for developing the instructional strategies that they must have. And when you put all that together, it’s gonna cost more money” (Garrett).

Of course, all of this discussion over “adequacy” stems from the 1970’s ruling in the Serrano v. Priest case which found that “…disparities in funding due to differences in property wealth were a violation of the California Constitution” (Garrett). Although legally speaking, “the courts have now ruled that equity within the parameters of Serrano has been accomplished in California,” few are satisfied with the “equitable” level of mediocrity (at best in some cases) that has developed in its wake. Again, according to Garrett, “…that’s just equity at the lowest common denominator, leaving no one really happy because they’re still not getting enough money to do the job.”

Thus, the real issue at hand seems to have become not one of “equity” but of “adequacy.” After all, few consider overall low standards to be good for anyone. Thus, the current situation involving the Williams case seems to be a direct challenge to this notion, in that it specifically challenges the state with the responsibility of not only establishing a fair and “equitable” finding system for all California schools, but also “asks the state to establish standards for facilities, curriculum and teacher quality, and to monitor those conditions in each district” (Garrett).

Yet the problems still remains that, despite a growing realization that adequacy is just as essential to quality education across the board for all California public school students, that the current funding system simply lacks the ability to deliver enough funds to produce adequate education environments and resources in many schools. As Peter Schrag writes in his Sacramento Bee article, “The Williams deal – Better California schools by inches,” “…the million-plus Hispanic and black kids in California’s lowest performing schools will enjoy slowly improving conditions. Most important, the state now acknowledges its constitutional responsibility for the condition of local schools.” However, he continues, “But the deal also demonstrates the difficulty of providing adequate resources, particularly good teachers, to the students who most need them – and especially in a state that spends as little per child as California does. It moves things forward, but by inches, not by yards.”

Again, using the acquisition and retention of “adequate” and competent teachers is an excellent example of the inadequacy of the current system — even after the Williams settlement — simply because the system, nor the funds have been adjusted to provide the level of education required in the schools. For instance, again according to Schrag:

it doesn’t, however, contain any major incentives to attract and retain qualified teachers in impacted schools: There are no provisions for more preparation time, or smaller classes or the additional support personnel – counselors, reading specialists, librarians, vice principals – that schools and teachers serving disadvantaged students especially need (Schrag, 2004).

Although, as some might suggest, many teachers are willing to dedicate themselves on principle to providing adequate (or even above-adequate) education for their students even in the most difficult of situations, one has to wonder just how long they will last before “burning out.” Additionally, in a culture that supposedly values education, one has to also wonder just why teachers are continually expected to operate out of altruistic motives at a higher level than the general population. To assume such a position simply is neither practical nor realistic.

Of course, in a post-Williams reality, in which the focus has shifted from equity to adequacy, one has to turn to issues of just how much additional funding and under what kind of reforms that funding will spring in order for schools to perform in an “adequate” fashion. Thus, not only must the concept of an “adequate education” be clearly defined on several levels (from facilities, to supplies, programs, and teacher qualifications, numbers, and characteristics), but also serious consideration of funding reforms must be preformed as well.

One thing that is abundantly clear throughout the state is that there is simply not enough funding at the moment to accomplish adequate education across all schools in California. Of course, many people point to the legacy of Proposition 13 as the fundamental and underlying reason for this reality. However, even given the average Californian’s resistance to increased taxation, one has to wonder if those same Californian’s would be willing to adjust (at least partially) in that resistance with the goal of increasing the per-pupil spending in state schools — provided that a workable plan were developed to actually apply that spending in an effective manner.

Of course, Californians hardly have their collective heads in the sand with regard to the terrible consequences of an inadequate school system. In fact, according to Howard Ryan in his article “Targeting Proposition 13 and Saving California,” “California was once a national leader in the quality of its schools and other public services.” Of course, this was no accident, but, instead, reflective of the general importance most Californians place upon quality schools and school programs. However, because of Proposition 13, in which California voters passed sweeping property tax relief measures in 1978 in a veritable “tax revolt,” (Ryan, 2002) California schools lag far behind much of their national counterparts in per-student funding.

Thus, one of the most commonly cited proposed “remedies” to the lack of funding available to schools (and other California programs) is to reform the property tax system under Proposition 13 — specifically by reassessing commercial property to adequately represent true market value (which it famously does not currently), thereby increasing revenue accrued from the resulting tax increase, the “recapture” of lost (due to under valuation) residential property taxes through “transfer taxation” (obviously, one of the least popular alternatives for many), and by reforming the current two-thirds voting requirements in the State Legislature (Ryan).

Again, the likelihood of any of these reforms is highly questionable. After all, tax increases are famously unpopular among the populace — regardless of state. However, of the three, the reform of the voting requirements may have the ability to garner the greatest support of the three measures — especially following the budget fiasco that the state has so recently experienced under Schwarzenegger.

Simply stated, by empowering the legislature to approve new taxes and spending policies by majority instead of the currently crippling two-thirds vote (in which a minority can effectively bottleneck or even kill an otherwise majority held opinion), would enable the legislature to reap no less than tow to five billion in “unjustified tax expenditures” annually (Ryan). Thus, “the state would have greater flexibility to plan for and respond to emerging needs and demands” (Ryan).

Be that as it may, many people still view the likelihood of serious reform of Proposition 13 to be mere “pie in the sky” dreaming — that Californians are simply unwilling to welcome changes to their property tax system — especially changes that cause a noticeable increase. Further, even changes of the legislative voting process could be opposed out of fear in some special interest sectors (in those that currently reap the benefits of those “unjustified tax expenditures.” Therefore, it may be more useful to consider changes from within the system as it stands that might allocate the funds that do exist in a more efficient manner.

One of the most commonly cited methods of “internal” or “as is” reform within the parameters of the current status quo that is proposition 13 is by changing the methods by which existing funds are allocated (once assessed) to individual districts. This is simply because, like most large organizational entities, school districts are famous for bureaucratic inefficiency. Although this is a problem that most spheres of publicly funded agencies deal with, the unique nature of the relationship between the bureaucrats on the district level with the actual educators on the individual school level in itself creates significant problems in the allocation of existing funds (such that they are).

Currently, the state school system fully allows district officials to allocate funds to specific in school programs. Thus, even if the group of educators that make up the school setting do not agree with the agenda or programs that are implemented or advocated at the bureaucratic level, they have little recourse or power to “redirect” those funds to areas, programs, and issues that they deem to be fundamental to the success of their particular student body, situation, or challenges.

By changing the way that decisions are made regarding the allocation of existing funds, it only makes sense that in many cases levels of school “adequacy” can improve. After all, it is the professional within the school (as opposed to the district office) that are the most qualified to assess the needs of the student body. By placing the power of funds allocation in the hands of those in possession of real student needs, it only stands to reason that the utility of those funds will increase dramatically.

Real-word examples of the “disconnect” between the allocation of funds and the actual needs of a particular school are easy to find or even imagine. Take for instance, the possibility that a particular district official is (perhaps for political reasons), particularly enamored of a particular program. One example may be “Whole Language” instruction. if, after becoming “convinced” in his or her office environment that Whole Language is the “way to go,” he or she can allocate a large percentage of available funds to that program. Yet, educators in the schools under the supervision of the district itself may realize that Whole Language just doesn’t seem to work for them. Instead, they may realize that their students (for whatever reason) tend to respond more positively to literacy instruction based on phonics. Under the present system not only will they be forced (for lack of a better alternative) to use a methodology or program that does not provide adequate educational benefit for their students, but they will be prevented from using those funds to purchase or implement a phonics program. This is clearly inefficiency at its worst.

In closing, it is all too clear that the current level of “adequacy” overall in the California public school system is far below standard. Although this can be clearly traced to inadequate levels of funding, it can also be traced to bureaucratic inefficiency and faulty assumptions about just how existing funds should be allocated (and by whom). One thing is clear, however, and that is in an environment in which adequate funding does not exist, it is all the more imperative for the funding that is present to be utilized in the most efficient and individualized manner possible. Thus, if more revenue simply cannot be generated through tax and legislative reform, then at the very least the revenue should be well-spent according to the needs of each school — especially when the schools themselves can have “special needs.”

Perhaps state school funding may be leaning more to a true representation of “equitable spending” of the resources that do exist. However, when the funds, systems, programs, and assets of the schools are sub-standard if equally allocated, few can applaud the change. True reform must both be geared toward the greatest equity possible between all schools in the state, as well as toward insuring that what is offered across the board is sufficient. After all, equity without adequacy or, conversely, adequacy without equity does little to serve the state, nor the legions of students under her care. Until both politicians and voters realize that, California schools will continue to lag behind.


Dictionary.com. (2004). Definition of Equity. Retrieved on October 14, 2004, from, http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=equity&r=67

Garrett, Kristi. (2003). “The Price of Success: The discussion about pricing a public education takes a noteworthy turn from equity to adequacy.” California School Boards Association Magazine. Retrieved on October 14, 2004, from, http://www.csba.org/csmag/Summer2003/csMagStoryTemplate.cfm?id=39

Ryan, Howard. (2002). “Targeting Proposition 13 and Saving California.” Web site. Retrieved on October 14, 2004, from, http://www.howardryan.net/prop13.htm

Schrag, Peter. (2004). “Williams deal – Better California schools by inches.” Sacramento Bee. Aug. 18. Retrieved on October 14, 2004, from, http://www.sacbee.com/content/politics/columns/schrag/story/10417928p-11337563c.html

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