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California and the West

U.S. Average for School Spending Is a Moving Target


SACRAMENTO — When Gov. Gray Davis unveiled his revised budget last week, his education czar proclaimed that California had reached a milestone: Finally, state spending on public school students would exceed the national average.

But the pronouncement, much like the national average itself, is a numbers game.

Although many acknowledge that Davis' proposal brings the state significantly closer to the national per-pupil average, the consensus among lawmakers, education experts and Capitol budget wonks is that it's unlikely to eclipse it.

For one thing, it is hard to pin down Davis' number. Department of Finance officials who compiled the revised budget put the figure at $6,672. The governor's press office says it's $6,768. The estimate grows to $7,038 if you turn to Davis' secretary of education.

Just as elusive is the national average. Most statistics are 2 to 3 years old, making it difficult, if not impossible, to project accurately how much other states are spending and how California compares.

"It's like chasing ghosts," said Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno).

Enrollment-based figures released by the National Education Assn. for the 1997-98 school year put the nation's average at $6,174 and California's at $5,580.

Though he was quick to lavish praise on Davis' funding proposal, Wayne Johnson, president of the powerful California Teachers Assn., was not about to concede that it elevates California to the national average.

Asked how there could be so many different spending rates floating around the capital, Johnson joked: "How does the old saying go? . . . Figures lie and liars figure?"

For much of the past decade California has ranked in the bottom half of the 50 states in per-pupil spending, making "national average" buzzwords among those who have sought to boost education funding. But now a growing number of bureaucrats and legislators says there is too much emphasis on comparing the amount California spends on education with the amount spent by the rest of the nation. The focus, they contend, should be on ensuring that additional funding is having a good effect in state classrooms.

"Nobody can actually figure [the national average] out with a good degree of certainty, and even if they did, what does it really tell you?" said Robert Turnage, K-12 coordinator of the independent legislative analyst's office.

Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni (D-San Rafael), who heads the Education Committee in the lower house, concurred. "One of the things I'd like to see is for us to . . . start talking about what it costs to educate a child in California."

A bill that would authorize the legislative analyst to complete a report to determine that cost is making its way through the Legislature.

Members of Davis' own administration say they too would like to move away from the national average as a barometer. Ann Bancroft, a spokeswoman for the state secretary of education, described it as a "problematic indicator."

"It's really not our policy to focus on the national average," Bancroft said.

But the focus was on exactly that when Davis presented his revised budget and three different per-pupil spending rates materialized.

By counting only funding required by Proposition 98, the 1988 initiative that requires at least 40% of the state's budget to be reserved for schools, the Department of Finance concluded that California would spend an average of $6,672 per public school student.

Davis' own figure--$6,768--includes the Proposition 98 requirement, according to Bancroft, and adds the governor's proposal to end income taxes for public school teachers, at a cost of $545 million in the new fiscal year.

Davis' interim secretary of education, Susan Burr, also weighed in. By her calculation, her boss's plan would push the state above the national average. Burr based her remarks on a rate that included Proposition 98 funding, along with federal money earmarked for education and proceeds from the California lottery.

Using that formula, Burr's office concluded, the state's per-pupil spending based on enrollment would rise to $7,038. That would rank California 20th in the nation and place it slightly above the national average, according to estimates Burr's office made using 1998-99 data from the National Education Assn.

A spokeswoman for the National Education Assn. said her organization has made no projections for the 2000-2001 budget year, so she could not comment on the accuracy of the Davis administration's estimates.

Yet another index, though, casts a favorable light on the administration's contention.

The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, which ranks education spending by state, projects the national average for per-pupil spending at $6,651 for the 2000-01 school year.

And with the national economy in good health, California is not alone in boosting education spending. Illinois Gov. George Ryan and South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, for example, have proposed more money for education in their states.

"Even as California spends more, so are other states," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin.

Given such factors, Eastin and others doubt that Davis' latest spending proposal will push the state past the national average.

"It's a game of probability," Turnage said. "The probability that it gets above the national average is . . . low, but there's a high probability that it's gotten us there or very close to it."

Added Bill Lucia, chief of staff for Sen. Charles Poochigian (R-Fresno): "It's certainly the case that we're very likely to be within one or two states of the national average, either above or below it."

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