Cliff notes for new students of CA’s byzantine school system

Cliff notes for new students of CA’s byzantine school system

(Calif.) Last month, a new two-year legislative session began in earnest, which means a lot of new faces on key policy and fiscal committees, and even some in leadership positions.

To help ease the transition—at least as far as education goes—the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst has issued a new guide to the state’s sprawling and dynamic school system.

Delivered in bite-size factoids, the white paper includes chapters on early education, the K-12 system, and California colleges, as well as the complex school facilities program.

The effort appears to be intended as a general resource rather than an all-inclusive authority, although the LAO also seemed to take care in reporting some items that might surprise its audience.

“Given California’s education system has so many facets, even those who have been immersed in it for years can at times feel daunted trying to understand it and keep apprised of all that is changing within it,” authors of the report said. “For state policy makers who need to be familiar with this system and who make important decisions that shape and reshape it, this report is designed for you. It is intended to help you learn as much as possible about the system as quickly as possible.”

Most lawmakers are no doubt well aware that K-12 expenditures represent the largest share of general fund spending. The governor’s proposed budget would provide nearly $59 billion for those needs in 2019-20—which is just under 41 percent of all general fund dollars.

The next closest program is health care, which would receive close to $30 billion next year, or about 21 percent of general fund dollars.

But state general fund money is just one source of support. Close to a third of the operational and capital funding comes from local property taxes, with federal money and other local sources providing the balance.

The LAO noted that California schools rely more heavily on state help than the average district across the U.S.

In the long-running debate about where California ranks nationally in education spending, the LAO also weighs in: the Golden State is in the middle.

The largest area of expense for schools are employee salaries, which makes up about half. Another third goes toward employee benefits, as do the cost of services. Books and classroom supplies is the smallest slice.

Not surprisingly, pensions represents one of the fastest-growing areas of spending—but the actual numbers might be: total district pension costs are expected to reach $9.5 billion by 2020-21, an increase of $6.3 billion since 2013-14.

Classroom overcrowding emerged a key issue in last month’s teacher strike in Los Angeles and a pending walk out in Oakland. But according to the LAO, the student-to-teacher ratio in California has fallen from recent highs recorded during the recession.

As of the 2017-18 school year, the ratio in high-poverty districts was under 21 students per teacher and about 22 students per teacher in low-poverty districts. The statewide average is just above 21 students per teacher.

The report notes, however, that California remains well above the national average of just under 16 students per teacher.

When it comes to student performance, there is some good news—marginally. The average score of California 4th graders on the national assessment in reading is closer to the national average than it has been in 25 years.

That said, the LAO notes that fewer than half of the state’s student population are meeting California’s own standards for proficiency.

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