As the debate in California grows regarding both the sufficiency and efficient use of school funds, there is still a lack of understanding of exactly what school districts spend money on and from where they get these funds. The goal of this paper is to describe the patterns of revenues and expenditures across California’s school districts, describe how spending has changed over time, and compare California to other states.
The paper defines categories of expenditures and revenues, taking as the base the existing definitions found in California’s detailed accounting system, the Standardized Accounting Code Structure (SACS). The data come from the 2004-2005 school year, the most current available SACS. The paper presents averages and distributions for each of the expenditure and revenue groups, showing that:
- Despite a school finance equalization plan under which California has operated since Serrano v. Priest (1971), there is wide variation in spending across California school districts. Across all funds, the difference in total expenditures in a district at the 25th percentile of spending and a district at the 75th percentile of student-weighted spending is more than $3,000 per student. Even limiting ourselves to a much more exclusive category from the general fund that we call student spending, the difference between the 25th and 75th percentile of student-weighted spending is more than $1,000 per student.
- How spending is defined matters. Average total expenditures per pupil are significantly higher when examining expenditures from all funds rather than just from the general fund. The California Department of Education’s (CDE) official definition of district spending relies solely on spending from the general fund. Though this fund is the largest, it accounts for only approximately 70 percent of all spending. Limiting measurement of district expenditures per pupil to the general fund under-reports actual district spending and masks major sources of variation across districts.
- K-12 salaries constitute approximately half of all expenditures and 60 percent of student spending. K-12 teachers’ salaries make up approximately two-thirds of total spending on salaries. K-12 administrators’ salaries comprise only nine percent of total spending on K-12 salaries.
- Employee benefits cost districts approximately 30 percent of the total cost of K-12 salaries.