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Report: Students in LA get far less bang for their educational buck

Craig Clough | May 23, 2016

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California may spend more on its students, but the high cost of living means students in the state — and particularly in Los Angeles — are getting far less on average than those in the rest of the nation, a new study shows.

But even if there’s less purchasing power for education in California, at least what is spent is distributed more equitably than in other states, it states.

The national report, released today by the non-profit EdBuild, finds that similar school districts across the country spend radically different amounts on their students, even when differences in local costs are taken into account. The data and the interactive map reveal systemic and unjustifiable inequities in the way schools are funded, the study states.

While California has traditionally ranked at or near the bottom in per-pupil spending nationally, with a cost-of-living adjustment, districts here fare even worse, said Rebecca Sibilia, founder and CEO of EdBuild.

“Once you start cost-adjusting for the state of California, the entire state drops substantially,” Sibilia said.

For LA Unified, per-pupil spending in 2013-14 was about $9,000, among the lowest in the nation at the time, but after a cost-of-living adjustment, that figure dropped to $7,443, or 37 percent below the national average of $11,866, according to the report. (Since 2013-14, the year of the report’s data, California’s education budget has soared by billions, and 2016’s per-pupil spending is estimated to top $14,000.)

• Read more from The 74: School funding inequality, often measured by state, is far worse nationally than you think

A key purpose of the report was to give a district-by-district breakdown across the nation on per-pupil spending after cost-of-living adjustments. The report also groups districts by their peers in other states, and for Los Angeles, the second-largest district in the nation, that is a small group of peers — New York and Chicago.

But just looking at those three districts supports one of the report’s key findings, which is that education budgets by state and by district have no rhyme or reason and disparities in the budgets of comparable school districts demonstrate “the arbitrariness of education funding in America. As we see again and again in districts around the country, education funding levels are determined by local wealth and state will—not by student need or any legitimate education considerations.”

While LA Unified spent $7,443 per student with an average median income in the district of $33,897, according to the report, New York spent significantly more — $11,801 — with a lower median income of $28,172. Chicago schools spent $9,266 with a median income of $37,847.

“One reason we decided to root all of our numbers in cost-adjusted figures is that we could actually start to compare across state borders, which is something that when it is done is often done at a large aggregate state level and doesn’t get down into the nuance of what does $9,000 in LA translate to in New York City. And what we find is it doesn’t translate to a whole lot. In fact, it translates to about $7,000,” Sibilia said.

The report also studied disparities that exist within states in how educational dollars are distributed, and Sibilia said California fares much better than other states in this regard due to the Local Control Funding Formula, a state law enacted in 2013-14 that directs extra funds to traditionally underserved students like English learners and those living in poverty. In essence, California in recent years has a smaller pie of educational dollars to divide up but is seen by many experts as dividing it up more fairly than other states.

“It is becoming more equitable in a state that is still significantly lagging in terms of its investment in education,”Sibilia said.

LA Unified was not the only district in California that did not fare well in the report compared to its peers.

“California lags in almost every peer group. Once we start cost-adjusting, the amount is significantly lower for what you can buy in these school districts compared to what is reported,” Sibilia said.

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