California ranks 46th in the U.S. in K-12 spending per student. It spent $2,856 less per student in 2010-11 than did the rest of the nation - a spending gap that is four times wider than it was a decade earlier, when the state lagged behind by $691 per student.
While it's debatable whether more spending means better schools, it's clear that sharp declines in California's general fund revenue, particularly since the 2007-08 fiscal year, have left schools strapped for resources, said Jonathan Kaplan, senior policy analyst at the project and author of the report [PDF].
"When state spending declines," Kaplan said, "that has a negative impact on schools in California, more so than in many other states, where local dollars are the majority of dollars that schools receive."
Since 1978, when the passage of Proposition 13 led to a dramatic shift in how schools were financed, California schools have relied heavily on state funding. Local revenues that used to make up about half of school funds accounted for 29.8 percent in 2010-11. State dollars, on the other hand, have grown from 35.3 percent of school funds in 1976-77 to 56.8 percent in 2010-11. Nationwide, state dollars have consistently represented about 45 percent of school revenue.
It's not just spending in which the state ranks poorly: California ranked last in the nation in the number of students per teacher (20.5) and per librarian (5,489), 49th in the number of students per guidance counselor (810) and 46th in the number of students per administrator (301).
The figures are concerning because California has more students and greater challenges than other states, Kaplan said. The state has the most English-language learners in the country and large numbers of low-income families - nearly 57 percent of California students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals in 2010-11.
"California's population is more challenging to teach, and yet we are consistently spending less than other states to go about addressing those specific needs," Kaplan said. "The fact that there are more students per teacher in California classrooms than any other state in the nation means there's less attention that can be placed on students with particular needs."
The project's analysis does not offer any antidotes for California's education spending woes. But it warns that "absent additional revenue, California schools will likely fall further behind."
Read more California investigative reports at CaliforniaWatch.com.