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Antonucci: Putting California school spending statistics in perspective

Mike Antonucci | May 29, 2018

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

United Teachers Los Angeles held a large rally in Grand Park last week in support of the union’s demands for a new contract. UTLA is very eager to piggyback on the phenomenon of teacher walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona.

California’s teachers have a much tougher case to make when it comes to salaries and school spending. UTLA alleges that public education is “criminally underfunded” and repeats the inaccurate claim that the state ranks 46th in per-pupil spending. That statistic is out of date. Things have changed dramatically in California.

All of the following numbers are taken from the annual Rankings & Estimates reports produced by the National Education Association. While not flawless, they certainly can’t be accused of being biased against teacher unions.

As the recession hit in fall 2008, California’s school spending stood at $8,605 per pupil. Nine years later, that amount stood at $11,159 — an increase of more than 20 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars. That places California 32nd in the national rankings.

NEA estimates that California’s per-pupil spending will increase to $12,039 in the 2018-19 school year.

Where does most of that money go? Public education is a labor-heavy enterprise, so the lion’s share of spending goes to employee salaries and benefits. The average California teacher salary in 2008 was $68,093. In 2017, it was $79,128 — an increase of 4 percent above inflation. California’s teachers rank second in the nation in pay. NEA estimates the state’s average teacher salary will climb to $81,126 for 2018-19.

If teacher unions have a legitimate complaint, it is that staffing levels have not returned to pre-recession levels. California employed 21,000 fewer teachers last year than it did in 2008, although some of that reduction is due to the state enrolling 27,000 fewer K-12 students. Enrollment is expected to continue to decline next year, and perhaps for the foreseeable future.

Reasonable people can disagree over the desired level of public education spending in the state, but we deserve accurate and complete information about what has been done so far. Describing substantial increases as criminal underfunding is a slap in the face to California taxpayers.

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