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Antonucci: LA Unified & UTLA like to cite school funding in NY and CA when crying poverty. They’re just playing a numbers game

Mike Antonucci | June 12, 2019

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Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears weekly at LA School Report.

Voters in the Los Angeles Unified School District last week rejected a parcel tax designed to raise $500 million annually for district operations. Needing a two-thirds majority to pass, Measure EE failed to receive 46 percent of the vote.

The measure had the support of a broad coalition of labor unions, the school board, city politicians, Democratic presidential candidates, corporate leaders and charter school advocates. They raised millions, vastly outspending the opposition. The district put up an estimated $12.5 million to pay for the election and an additional $1 million on an “information campaign,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

When the results came in, the backers didn’t exactly handle it with grace. The Courage Campaign, one of the measure’s financial supporters, said “corporate lobbyists and mega-landlords were able to bamboozle Los Angeles voters.”

LA Unified officials told the Times the money was badly needed, and they “pointed to much higher spending levels for schools in New York City and other large urban areas.”

Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, repeated an oft-quoted statistic to demonstrate the district’s funding needs.

“Even though California is one of the wealthiest states in the nation, it ranks 44th in the country in per-pupil funding and spends thousands less per student each year than the average state,” he wrote.

Rather than argue about these claims, let’s take a look at why both LA Unified and the union choose the comparisons they do. All the figures I cite below are derived from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of School System Finances for 2017.

Both union and district officials want to stack LA Unified finances against those of New York City ($25,199 per pupil). But NYC is an outlier. Of the 50 largest school districts in the nation, the next-biggest spender was Baltimore, which spent $9,000 less per pupil than New York.

Of those 50 largest school districts, LA Unified ranked 11th in per-pupil spending, ahead of Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Miami and Las Vegas — each one a “large urban area.”

Los Angeles teachers might complain that they see precious little of this spending in their wallets and in their classrooms. They may be right.

Los Angeles ranked ninth out of the 50 largest school districts in percentage of spending that went toward employee benefits. In fact, four of the nine highest-percentage spenders on benefits were California school districts.

That’s how Los Angeles compares with other large districts across the country. But what about within California?

LA Unified is by far the largest school district in the state, nearly five times the size of second-place San Diego. And in California, size matters when it comes to funding.

Of the state’s 50 largest districts, LA Unified spent the most per pupil, $13,549. That’s 11 percent above the national average — but let’s not fall into that regional cost-of-living trap. It’s also more than $1,000 per pupil more than what the school districts in Anaheim, Santa Ana and Long Beach spent, and about $1,800 more than San Diego.

In short, when LA Unified and the union cite the state’s low ranking, they are really complaining about the lack of spending in other California districts.

During the January teacher strike, the union constantly reminded us that the district’s financial projections were off the mark. Though union officers shelved that skepticism during the parcel tax campaign, they certainly raised interesting questions about the number-crunchers at LA Unified.

After Measure EE’s failure, district officials took only two days to discover they could balance the books and still maintain an emergency reserve.

Reasonable people can disagree about the proper level of school funding in Los Angeles and elsewhere. But we should be leery of the claims of poverty made by those who will receive the funding.

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