Former state legislator Ted Lempert is personally and professionally committed to improving the wellbeing of California’s children.

Lempert, the president of Children Now, has tirelessly advocated to improve children’s futures and last week released a lengthy report comparing California to other states and concluding that we are woefully underspending on education.

“Since the 1960s, and accelerated by the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, California has experienced a decline in adequate funding for the public education system that has created a jarring reality for its 6.2 million students,” the Children Now report asserted.

“California is at the bottom of the country in terms of the amount of supports it provides to its students,” Lempert said in a statement. “If, as a state, we’re serious about providing an equitable, high-quality education for all kids, state leaders must invest more in education, starting early on in order to prepare them for success in high school and beyond.”

The report is clearly timed to support drives to place two tax increase measures on the November 2020 ballot, one that would increase property taxes on commercial structures, and another that would increase corporate and personal income taxes.

If both passed, schools would see about $20 billion a year in additional financing, or roughly $3,000 for each of the state’s 6.2 million K-12 students.

Proponents of the measures, unions for the property tax proposal and the California School Boards Association for the income tax hike, will echo Children Now, telling voters that our schools will once again shine if they have billions of more dollars to reduce class sizes, hire more teachers and expand support services.

But is it true?

By happenstance, the report was issued just as the federal government released scores from the latest round of national academic testing of 4th and 8th graders in reading and mathematics.

California maintained its mediocre status in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, up a little in some categories, down a little in others, with huge gaps separating poor and English-learner students from more affluent white and Asian classmates.

California’s test results have shown virtually no overall improvement even though we have increased per-pupil spending by about 50 percent in recent years. Nevertheless, Children Now and others contend that our academic shortfall would be closed by spending more.

However, there’s almost no correlation between spending and NAEP standing in 8th-grade reading, which is particularly important because reading comprehension is vital to success by students about to enter high school.

The District of Columbia tops per-pupil spending from all sources, according to theU.S. Census Bureau, at $23,091, followed by New York at $21,974, Connecticut at $19,322 and New Jersey at $18,920.

Utah is dead last at $7,179, with Idaho ($7,486) and Arizona ($8,003) slightly higher. California is already closing in on the top ranks at $17,160, according to the 2019-20 state budget.

Although the District of Columbia spends the most, its 8th-grade reading score of 250 is 12 points under the national average and one of the nation’s lowest. New York is second in spending but its reading score, 262, is identical to the national average, and just three points higher than California’s 259.

No. 3 Connecticut and No. 4 New Jersey are both markedly above average, but so are No. 51 Utah and No. 50 Idaho.

An adequate amount of money is obviously needed for education, but contrary to the assertions of Children Now and other advocates, it’s not the only factor, and shouldn’t be oversold. Our educational dilemma is much more complicated than that.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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