Will California’s Schools Ever Fully Reopen? There’s Plenty of Money

With a significant portion of the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package earmarked for K-12 public schools, concerns have arisen over potential misuse of those funds. As Fox News recently reported, “Multiple California school districts have discussed using state and federal COVID relief money to hand out bonuses for teachers and staff, with one district’s union even reportedly proposing the money be used for a trip to Hawaii.”

According to the article, Clovis Unified School District, located in Fresno County, proposed granting a $6,000 bonus per employee. San Juan Unified, located in Sacramento County, proposed paying teachers a one-time bonus equivalent to 1 percent of their annual salaries. And the union representing Dublin Unified, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, proposed its teachers receive a $2,500 bonus that could be used for, among other things, “an airplane trip to Hawaii.”

Subsequent investigation has a Dublin Unified union spokesperson emphatically insisting the Hawaii suggestion was just a joke. Fair enough, although a bit out of character. Teachers’ unions in general tend to be rather humorless when they are the targets of jest. In any case, California’s parents and taxpayers shouldn’t be distracted by anecdotal reports of abuse. These are relatively small dollars. The whole gargantuan system deserves withering review.

To get an impression of just how much federal stimulus money, overall, that California’s school districts are getting, EdSource has posted a database showing the amounts per district and per student. Quoting from the summary, “this latest bill will bring an estimated total funding of $26.4 billion to K-12 schools in California.” The $26.4 billion includes all three relief portions of federal legislation passed in less than a year to cope with the pandemic.

When it comes to estimating the total amount of money currently pouring into California’s K-12 system of education, federal COVID relief is just one piece of a much bigger pie. Additional supplemental funding comes in the form of recent state legislation, announced March 1, that will pile another $6.6 billion into district coffers to “cope with the harm from Covid-19 on students’ learning and mental health.”

Easily lost in all these supplemental numbers is the baseline funding for California’s K-12 public schools, which is presumably unaltered during the 2020-2021 school year because (1) while revenue is based on per pupil attendance, this year the districts (except for charter schools, of course) were permitted to use prior year attendance statistics, and (2) the state budget, to everyone’s surprise, came away with a surplus in the current fiscal year, making draconian cuts unnecessary.

So how much were California’s taxpayers shelling out, per K-12 public school enrollee, prior to the pandemic?

An analysis conducted by the California Policy Center in 2020 debunked the popular statistics that put the total somewhere between $12,000 and $18,000 per year, depending on the source. These commonly cited sources failed to include the state’s annual CalSTRS contribution, currently $2.8 billion and rising, nor did they include the annual cost to taxpayers to pay down currently outstanding school bonds, which adds at least another $15 billion each year.

Taking these and other factors into account, the analysis found the baseline cost of California’s K-12 public schools to be around $137.6 billion, or just over $20,000 per year per pupil. Adding the state and federal supplemental funds to that yields a total estimated K-12 spending in California today of $170 billion, or over $25,000 per pupil. What has that bought parents and students so far?

The “agreement for online learning” that was extended earlier this year between LAUSD, California’s biggest school district, and its union, offers a glimpse. The original agreement negotiated in August 2020 called for classes are to be conducted online, with each school day running from 9 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. As reported by EdSource at the time, “Now, teachers in the district will be required to work six hours daily: from 9 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. and for another 45 minutes at their discretion.”

The updated agreement, as reported in the Los Feliz Ledger, adds “an additional 20 to 30 minutes of instruction on Mondays for students in first- through 12th-grades. It also adds one hour per month — 15 minutes each Monday — for professional development or department meetings, and 30 additional minutes of office hours Tuesdays through Fridays for meetings with students and families.”

If you add this all up, it means LAUSD teachers are currently required to work roughly 7 hour days, less than what they had to work pre-pandemic. We may assume most of them are also relieved of a daily commute.

The average LAUSD teacher the average LAUSD teacher makes over $100K per year in pay and benefits, and this estimate is understated because it doesn’t take into account paying down their unfunded pension and retirement health care liabilities. They now earn this in exchange for working at most 7 days per week, for 180 days per year. The average full time worker puts in between 230-240 days of work per year.

Very few advocates for quality public education would question pay and benefits at this level for good teachers. And in any case, the issue of teacher compensation is peripheral to the main issue: What are these school districts doing with all this money?

Why is it that charter schools and private schools have remained mostly open for in-person instruction, and yet we hear no horror stories from any of them? Why is it that instead of exploring new ways to manage teachers and students in order to get them back to classrooms, we just get more stories of “heroic round-the-clock negotiations” with unions that claim to care about the children, while schools remain shut? Why is Newsom’s loudly proclaimed agreement for schools to “fully reopen by April 1st” far less than it sounds?

A scandalous trip-to-Hawaii rumor should not take anyone’s eyes off the real issue. Tens of billions of additional dollars are pouring into California’s system of K-12 public education. A comprehensive, blistering audit of where all that money goes is past due.

This article originally appeared on the website of the California Globe.

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