School finance in CA: Will it take a lawsuit (or two) to fix it?

Most people I’ve spoken to about California’s school finance system, regardless of their political views, seem to agree that it’s a mess. The researchers on the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence described it as “the most complex in the country, lacking an underlying rationale and transparency,” inequitable, inefficient, unpredictable, unstable and inadequate.

Mike Kirst, the Stanford University education professor emeritus I interviewed today, said he wouldn’t even call it a system. He did call it “an accretion of incremental actions that don’t fit together and that make no sense.”

Will the courts finally force the deadlocked state Legislature to overhaul the complex, arcane formulas that dictate how California allocates money to its schools (and how much)? The nonprofit Public Advocates law firm hopes so. It filed suit today in Alameda Superior Court on behalf of a coalition of advocacy groups, students and parents, saying the status quo denies students the right to a meaningful education. (They also released a video to explain and promote the plaintiff’s case.)

The suit is very similar to an Alameda Superior Court case filed in May by the California PTA, California School Boards Association and an Alameda High School student, Maya Robles-Wong. The two are supposed to be complementary, and they might end up being consolidated in court. While both groups seek to improve the school system as a whole, the second group of plaintiffs will push for additional resources at high-poverty schools; they also brought preschool into the picture.

You can download a copy of the complaint here. Do you think the courts will force California’s Legislature and governor to radically reform its school finance system? Do you agree with the changes proposed by the plaintiffs in this case — namely, to provide significantly more state resources to schools in poor areas?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Bill Kelly

    Best possible outcome is to dissolve the California Board of Education.
    Access their website, and attempt to count the number of layers from the top to your student in the classroom.
    All money down a dark hole with nothing to show for it.

  • J.R.

    That’s a great idea for starters. There is far too much bureaucracy to be sustainable under current conditions. Plenty of money is being paid by taxpayers for the education of our children, just not enough of it makes it into the classroom for the kids.

  • Gordon Danning

    Bill and JR:

    This seems to indicate otherwise; 1) the money is a pittance; 2) the bulk of the money (click on “education”) seems to be distributed to local schools as categorical funding: http://www.ebudget.ca.gov/StateAgencyBudgets/6010/6110/department.html

  • J.R.

    The educational system itself has a structural bloat problem, there are way too many redundancies and flat out unnecessary positions. We need to simplify this overly complex titanic system that is wasting taxpayer monies. Once again we are paying on avg. 9.5K per year per child(250-300K per classroom) teachers take 80K+/- in benefits, and what exactly is being done with the other 200+/-K per class per year. Taxpayer money is being given the “Government treatment”, and I mean districts are given a budgeted amount, and if they don’t spend it all they wont get that amount the next budget year. So government entities learn to spend all there is(even if it is unnecessary) so they can get more money next time. Only now there is no money, and they are living beyond their means. That is precisely what I mean about waste Gordon. Taxpayers have to “go out and earn” their money, it doesn’t just come to them on a timely basis in a predictable manner. This is one reason the issue of “bad teachers” really leaves a bad taste in my mouth. No one has ever rationally explained why we need superintendents and asst. superintendents in every school district, and do we need them all along with their staff. Why aren’t we combining districts to cut costs? The whole system needs to be audited or better yet, thrown away and re-invented as magnet schools or charters.

  • J.R.

    These people know how to play “three card monty” with categories of employees and expenditures “classified” or “certified”, and the different categories of funding to garner as much money as is possible(wasteful or not). It has become a game of “enrichment of adults”, it is no longer about simply teaching children.

    Here is just one example:


    Read this and let me know your opinion, I would love to hear it.

  • Gordon Danning


    Well, first, your math is wrong. You can’t divide by 32 – that is the class size maximum, not the average class size. Class sizes are smaller in many classes, esp, special ed. Also, there are many, many adults on campus who serve students but who are not classroom teachers – special ed and bilingual aides, counselors, psychiatrists, a computer tech, security staff, janitors, and most importantly, the person who runs the xerox room. For example, Oakland High, as of 2008-2009, according to the ed-data website, had 91 certificated staff (including administrators, counselors, and the librarian) and 62 classified staff.

    As for asst supts, I dont know how many a district needs, but it isnt zero. Someone has to oversee hiring, benefits, curriculum, etc etc etc.

  • J.R.

    I put a range 250-300K which are approximations because there are districts with larger class sizes especially secondary(I said the system which includes all state districts), but they are in the ballpark thus the point remains. .As for how many sups, I would love to know how many we actually need, and I never said zero, I just question the need of actual numbers that we have. The entire system is being used as an EDD instead of simply teaching children.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Wow, J.R. said something I agree with for once: Small district superintendents are ripping off the state taxpayers.

    When tiny San Lorenzo’s Supe makes more than Oakland’s, you know you have somebody who is manipulating a small-town school board to great effect.

    Similarly, in Oakland, small-school principals are paid WAY more per unit of stress than the big-school principals — hence, nobody wants to apply for the big-school posts.

  • Gordon Danning


    You seem to totally miss my point. 1) Your “range” is totally off; according to Ed-data, the average pupil-teacher ratio in California schools is 20.9-1. But, as i noted, there are many adults who serve students in schools but who are not teachers. To use Oakland High’s ratio of 91:62, the adult-student ratio is [20.9 x 91/153]-1, or 12.4-1. Assuming that classified cost $20,000 per year less than teachers, then the cost per adult is (using your numbers) [91×80000 + 62×60000]/153 = 71896. Divide that by 12.4 and you get a cost of $5780 per pupil in on site personnel costs alone. That is 61% of the total ADA. Now, MAYBE that is too much, or maybe it isnt, but it is a far cry from the 26-332 % yielded by your estimates.

    Re: your link to the report re: LAUSD, I have no idea what each one of those people does, but neither do you. So, why are you SO SURE that the money is wasted?

    PS: I don’t know that the Daily News (or, the “Green Sheet,” as we called it when I was growing up in the area) is the most reliable source, given: 1) the biased tone of the article; and 2)the idiotic comparison of INDIVIDUAL salaries with HOUSEHOLD income.

    PPS: See that stuff I just mentioned about analyzing the credibility of sources? That is stuff that the State expects students to learn to do. So the District periodically holds training for teachers re: how to teach students to do that. Guess who organizes the training? Yes, an EVIL DOWNTOWN BUREAUCRAT. Guess who they get to help teachers? Usually, a history professor from a local university, or, as the union puts it, an EVIL OUTSIDE CONSULTANT. So, are SURE that the money spent “outside the classroom” is wasted?

  • J.R.

    20.9-1 is way way off at this moment in time, and averages do not tell the whole story. Take OUSD for example teacher pay averages approx 39K, are the teachers underpaid? No, that is an average pushed downward by the fact that OUSD has an exceptionally high turnover and a large number of new teachers who are paid at the low end of the scale. The teachers who have time in are doing just about as well as other districts, except student performance is much lower than other districts. Addressing your cost estimates(vis a vis classified etc)Here are some numbers for you to look at.


    Another source(although opinion has some interesting facts) which you’ll probably say has no credibility whatsoever, but here it is anyway:


    Thanks Gordon, and thank you too Cranky!

  • Jenna

    My fear is that if the State of California feels like it my lose the court battle, they will do away with standards, assessments and requirements for which they can be held accountable.

    The vast majority of good teachers will continue to teach at high standards, but many principals will not worry so much about the learning of all students and many teachers will teach those students that tend to learn more easily and are receptive to the teachers’ preferred methods of teaching rather than reaching out to all students’ learning styles and methods.

    It will also dismantle the special education system because to protect itself the government will add terms such as “where feasible” and financially English Language Learners and Special Education is expensive for schools and in a depressed economy it may not “be feasible” to offer specialized services.

    The words would let the governments and school districts off the hooks.

  • Gordon Danning


    1) Where is your evidence that the 20.9-1 is “way off”? More importantly, even if budget cuts have led to an increase in that number, they have also obviously led to less total spending, so the bottom line effect on the percent of money “wasted” on “bureaucracy” is almost certainly negligible.

    2) OUSD average teacher salary is $39K?? $39K is how much a first year, uncredentialed teacher makes. Average salary is something like $55K plus benefits

    3) I dont get the relevance of the schoolfinancecenter.org reference. Of course, schools with low performing students have more money to spend — that’s why they get the extra money — Title I, biligual ed, etc goes to schools with students from historically low-performing groups.

    Also, if you look at at that website’s info re: LAUSD, it shows that, since 2003, LAUSD has shown steady progress on state tests for every subgroup. Isn’t that the same time that their “downtown bureaucracy” has become “bloated”? So, doesn’t that imply that we need to spend more money on downtown services, not less?

  • Sue

    Jenna, I don’t think your fears are grounded in reality. I can’t speak to standards, assessments, etc., but I can speak knowledgibly about Spec. Ed. after 14 years in OUSD with a son with autism.

    First, CA could *potentially* change the state-level laws – that’s true. However, IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) is Federal law, and regardless of how much or how little CA changes state-level education laws, all schools will still have to comply with the Federal IDEA requirements. And those have teeth (at least when parents / student advocates know how to use them) – when a school district fails to “provide a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE)” that district loses lawsuits, and may end up paying for the student’s private school tuition, the student’s remedial needs, the family’s attorney and court costs, etc.

    It’s a whole lot less expensive for districts to comply with that federal law in the first place, and even the real dummies in school district administrations tend to learn that after they’ve lost in court a few times and had to pay many times over what it would have cost to just meet the student’s needs in the beginning.

    And now the Federal government is looking into national education standards for all students. Don’t know if that will happen soon, but I think it will happen. And once it does, it won’t matter what CA state law says. Our students will have federal standards and our schools will have to meet them.

  • J.R.

    At this point in time in Hayward, Fremont, Union City,Pleasanton,Danville and many more there are no classes with less than 25 kids, with the exception of SDC classes which are not in every school(most if not all classes are 28 to 32)The average you are using is affected by CSR(K-3 class size reduction)which is pretty much dismantled as we speak.It has become obvious you and I will never see it the same way, and that’s just the way it is. I am a taxpayer who is entirely dependent on me showing my employer that I am worth what he pays me, every (day,month,year, decade). I am not locked in, and I have not earned(nor am I owed) anything past my previous paycheck. You will never see the absolute nonsense in this bureaucratic educational system because it “is” normal to you. We will just have to move on, and the taxpayers(including me) will have take care of business because there is no other choice.The progress made in both LAUSD and OUSD is just that there is nowhere to go but up(that and isolating the poor performers in SDC classes so they wont hurt the school average so much), and it would never happen without the kids in the hills and their high scores anyway.

  • Gordon Danning


    Believe it or not, I, too, am a taxpayer. And, I have never in any of my posts argued that the amount of money spend on administration is the correct amount; rather, I have challenged your unsupported assumption that it is too high. For all I know, students would be better off if we spend less downtown, and as far as you know, they would be better off if we spent more downtown.

    Specifically, i have tried to call attention to your rather slipshod use of evidence. For example, you keep saying things like, “there are no classes with less than 25 students,” but that is not the issue — “class size” is not the same thing as “teacher-student ratio” because many “teachers” are not in regular classes – eg: special ed teachers. Your original point was that “too much money is being spent on bureacracy,” and was supported by totally inaccurate estimates of how many teachers (let alone other adults) are employed at school sites.

    Finally, your claim that LAUSD and OUSD’s improvement “would never happen without the kids in the hills and their high scores anyway” is manifestly wrong, because: 1) as Nextset has pointed out many times, those kids dont go to LAUSD schools; and 2) both of those districts — according to the site you referenced — have shown improvement for ALL subgroups, including “socio-economically disadvantaged” and “English learners,” neither of which are found in any numbers in hill schools.

    But you’re right — you won’t convince me and I won’t convince you. You won’t convince me because you are unwilling or unable to marshal actual evidence in support of your arguments, and I won’t convince you because you don’t seem remotely interested in what is best for students, but rather seem interested only in saving taxpayers a buck (or, more accurately, a dime), or in remedying what you see as the horrible injustice in some people having greater job security than you do.

  • J.R.

    I was just trying to make you aware that you pay taxes from tax money that you receive(that kinda cancels it out).Using those ratios as if they are reality and not just an average is a little disengenuous, and that is part of my point. Some districts avg 8K per student, and some average 23K per student(ex. LAUSD). The reason for the high end is those specialists, aides,math coaches, district coordinators etc. and yet the student performance is bottom half of the barrel(being paid 6 figures isn’t making much difference is it?). Money and specialist’s are not the answer(we may not have the most but they are among the highest paid). We have been doing this dance for decades and the only ones moving up in life are the teachers and administrators. You don’t think the subgroup numbers are being played with? If the truth ever sees the light of day you will know. As for my job security, I am not the least bit worried, because that is in my hands. If nearly half of the California state budget is not enough then this state deserves what it gets, just like in the Oakland PD the older cops throwing 80 young cops “under the bus” all to keep their high pay and benefits. Unions are just grand, with “union brothers” like that, who needs enemies. That link I sent you “school finance center .org” was district “bang for the buck” scale and OUSD is high cost but low performing, it’s true. These progressive beliefs and policies have never, and will never dig us out of this grave situation.


  • Gordon Danning


    I give up. You say that LAUSD spends $23K per kid, yet this says they spend $11K http://www.ed-data.k12.ca.us/Navigation/fsTwoPanel.asp?bottom=/profile.asp%3Flevel%3D06%26reportNumber%3D16

    You say that “the subgroup numbers are being played with,” but you cite no evidence for that. You do realise, don’t you, that state testing is handled at school sites, and that “playing with” the subgroup numbers in LAUSD would require altering test scores of a hundred thousand kids at 800 school sites. If the LAUSD bureaucracy is organized enough to pull that off, then they truly are model of efficiency, are they not?

    Anyway, it you aren’t going to offer evidence for your assertions, there is nothing further to discuss.

  • J.R.

    Oops, that’s supposed to be 13K, and regarding testing irregularities Georgia is taking some heat for that.


  • J.R.
  • Gordon Danning


    Right, that’s my point. Those are individual schools, not entire, 900-school districts. Hardly evidence that LAUSD is faking test data for every subgroup.

    So, again, the only evidence we have in front of us is that, in LAUSD, increased downtown bureaucracy is correlated with higher test scores for all subgroups.

  • J.R.

    That’s like saying test scores for children are lower in the south because there are no teachers unions as compared to the north, no correlation whatsoever. BTW the cheating is much more widespread than that, due in large part to the ridiculous presumptions of NCLB.

  • J.R.

    I am seeing proportionately more below basic and far below basic children as time goes on, there are multiple factors that account for that:

    1. more stringent standards(due to NCLB).

    2. less support at home(homelessness, divorce,general instability).

    3. social promotion, this was a big mistake we will continue to pay for.

    4. kids are dependent on electronic gadgets for entertainment, and study aids that they either can’t or don’t want to think on their feet.

    5. Substandard teachers who never taught kids mastery of the core basics early on, and kids never do catch up and continue to struggle. That’s why I say bad teachers can do so much damage.

    Specialists and extra money will not cure these ills(it only makes sure that adults are taken care of). Home support and stability are a much bigger factor than those things. Studies say we(USA) are on par with other nations K-3, but we are losing our children after that point. That could be that we don’t see the disparity until later on, I don’t know. The truth is we do have enough money to fund education properly, but there are many unnecessary expenditures that take away resources we are just so used to having them that we think they are necessary. I am sure you have heard all the stories about cappuccino machines, employees surfing the net on taxpayer time, well it has happened frequently over the last 5-10 years and every penny of that takes away from students, and it is a crime.

  • Gordon Danning


    Not to mention comfy chairs for teachers (those who wanted them, at least), which happened at my school. But, even assuming that everything you say is true, what is your solution? To do nothing?

    And, how can you make a blanket statement like, “specialists and extra money will not cure these ills”? If a new teacher wants to learn how to improve student writing or thinking or whatever, the District has people (often professors at local universities) who can say, “Well, here is what the research says.” If a kid walks up to me, as one did this year, and says, “Mr. Danning, I’m thinking of getting a mastectomy; I hate my breasts,” the school pays people to whom I can refer her (because I am certainly not competent to help her).

  • Transparency

    Education: Loyalty dead, get used to it
    By Milan Moravec
    Guest Commentary
    Posted: 07/24/2010 12:01:00 AM PDT

    Public and private organizations are into a phase of creative disassembly where reinvention and adjustments are constant. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are being shed by Chevron, NUMMI, Wells Fargo Bank, HP, Bechtel, Starbucks, etc., as well as the state, counties and cities.

    Even solid world-class institutions like the University of California Berkeley are firing staff, faculty and part-time lecturers. Estimates are that the state of California may jettison 47,000 positions.

    Yet many employees, professionals and faculty cling to old assumptions about one of the most critical relationship of all: the implied, unwritten contract between employer and employee.

    Until recently, loyalty was the cornerstone of that relationship. Employers promised job security and a steady progress up the hierarchy in return for employees fitting in, performing in prescribed ways and sticking around.

    Longevity was a sign of employeer-employee relations; turnover was a sign of dysfunction. None of these assumptions apply today. Organizations can no longer guarantee employment and careers, even if they want to.

    Organizations that paralyzed themselves with an attachment to “success brings success” rather than “success brings failure” are now forced to break the implied contract with employees — a contract nurtured by management that the future can be controlled.

    Jettisoned employees are finding that the hard-won knowledge,



    skills and capabilities earned while being loyal are no longer valuable in the employment marketplace.

    What kind of a contract can employers and employees make with each other? The central idea is both simple and powerful: the job or position is a shared situation.

    Employers and employees face market and financial conditions together, and the longevity of the partnership depends on how well the for-profit or not-for-profit meets the needs of customers and constituencies.

    Neither employer nor employee has a future obligation to the other. Organizations train people. Employees develop the kind of security they really need — skills, knowledge and capabilities that enhance future employability.

    The partnership can be dissolved without either party considering the other a traitor. Loyalty is dead — so get used to it.

    Milan Moravec is a consultant and a resident of Walnut Creek.