'Nightly News' Bemoans School Funding Woes

     The slowed economy is being blamed for a lot of things, and now the NBC “Nightly News” says it is hurting the children because of funding problems in California public schools.

     “In today’s tough financial times, nearly all of California’s public schools need help. Why? The state is facing a painful budget shortfall,” Rehema Ellis reported on May 26. “Experts say school programs and staff could be affected unless the state finds a way to offset rising costs.”

     Ellis highlighted private fundraising efforts in towns like Davis, Calif., as evidence of funding woes, but said private efforts probably won’t do much except “further divide the haves and the have nots,” as “Nightly News” host Lester Holt said when introducing the segment.

     “In low-income areas like east Los Angeles, there aren’t many options to fill in the gaps in education funding,” Ellis said, “so people in school districts like this one are bracing themselves to do without.”

     But the decline in California’s education spending predates the current economic downturn, something Ellis didn’t mention in her report.

     California’s per-pupil spending relative to the national average has been generally declining since the late 1980s. In 2005, the RAND Corporation estimated that in 2000 – well before the current economic downturn -- California was spending $600 less per child than other states.

     Another factor is salaries paid to teachers and other school administrators. The National Education Association, a major teachers’ union, ranks California second-highest in the nation in teacher pay. Educators earn an average of $57,876 a year in 2004-2005, second only to Washington, D.C.

     The RAND Corporation study said 85 percent of California’s K-12 expenditures “are devoted to personnel salaries and benefits, and close to 40 percent of all expenditures are devoted to teacher salaries and benefits.”

     The move from local-level financing to state-level financing also corresponds with drops in funding, according to RAND, and there’s little local communities can do about it. “The school districts have few options for raising their own funds,” the report states. “Further, a growing share of education dollars is being distributed as categorical, or restricted, aid, as opposed to ‘revenue limit,’ or general purpose, aid. These trends have raised concerns about a decline in local discretion.”