Education Equity in California

Hayin Kimner

This paper focuses on implications for equity in the research findings of Getting Down to Facts II (GDFTII). Policymakers changed education funding and governance with the 2014 enactment of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), Gov. Jerry Brown’s historic school funding and accountability legislation. This policy and others intended to tackle low test scores, wide achievement gaps, and other challenges identified in the 2008 research paper series, Getting Down to Facts (Loeb, Bryk, & Hanushek, 2008; Levin et al., 2018).

Today, ten years after the initial Getting Down to Facts studies, the state has made only limited progress in reducing achievement and opportunity gaps. Students who are Black, Latino, low-income, and/or English language learners continue to have low academic outcomes, and the disparities with White and Asian students mean that California as a whole has outcomes significantly below national averages. In 2017, results from the National Assessment of Education Progress (National Center for Education Statistics & Institute of Education Sciences, 2018) showed average reading performance in California was lower than all but five other states in fourth grade, and all but 10 states in eighth grade; in math, California was worse than all but five states in fourth grade and six states in eighth grade.

California’s most recent education reforms have largely relied on good intentions rather than specific accountability, corrective action, and enforcement (Warren & Carrillo, 2015) to disrupt and reverse generations of entrenched inequity. For example, LCFF gives school districts more money to support disadvantaged students but does not guarantee adequate school funding or alter state limits, such as the Proposition 13 limits on property taxes, on local fiscal authority.

After considering the definition of education equity and noting the background of student groups’ isolation by class, race, language, and ethnicity, this paper has sections on teaching, learning, finance, and accountability. It concludes with a more speculative section defining a broader conception of equity for the future, whole child equity; it points us towards a research agenda which could well provide new evidence-based strategies for moving the needle on this nearly intractable problem.


  • Equity incorporates ideas of access, opportunity, and need. A commitment to education equity entails concern about group disparities in important inputs or outcomes.
  • Ten years after the initial Getting Down to Facts studies, California has made only limited progress in reducing achievement and opportunity gaps. Students who are Black, Latino, low-income, and/or English language learners continue to have low academic outcomes and the disparities with White and Asian students is a major reason state outcomes remain significantly below national averages.


  • Latino, Black, and Native American students are more likely to be economically disadvantaged and to be concentrated in schools with other poor children. Latino students typically attend schools with the highest rate of children eligible for free lunch (more than 60 percent); for White children the rate is the lowest (30 percent).

Challenges for Rural Schools

  • On average and adjusting for socio-economic status, students at rural schools lag behind urban and suburban peers.
  • Rural schools have proportionately fewer fully credentialed teachers compared to urban and suburban schools.
  • Early learning programs are scarcer in rural communities, so children are more likely to enter kindergarten less prepared. Rural counties usually have the highest percentages of children whose families are income-eligible—but are not served—by publicly funded early education programs.
  • Rural districts have typically been more underfunded even with an allowance awarded to small districts. Under LCFF, rural districts received just 2 percent more on a per pupil basis than their urban counterparts and continue to have a harder time supplementing state aid with local revenues or federal grants.

Teacher Pipeline and Distribution

  • The number of teachers with substandard credentials—having met neither testing nor preparation requirements—has jumped by 260 percent since the 2012–2013 school year.
  • In high-poverty schools, teachers are twice as likely to be teaching on an emergency-style permit than in low-poverty schools. In high-minority schools, teachers are three times more likely to have emergency-style permits than in low-minority schools.
  • Districts serving the most English language learners are nearly 20 percent more likely to report teacher shortages, compared to districts with the least number of English language learners.
  • Two thirds of new California special education teachers are on substandard credentials.

Early Childhood

  • California does not fund enough early childhood and preschool programs. In 2014, at least 42 percent of children eligible for state-funded preschool were not served.
  • Black and Latino children are underrepresented in early intervention and preschool special education programs, then overrepresented in K–12 special education.

English Learners

  • The diversity and individual needs of English learners (ELs) are not matched by the realities of policy structure and implementation.
  • For ELs with disabilities, schools struggle with identification and response, with varying degrees of validity and reliability across districts.
  • In some of the highest need locations and subjects, there are not enough qualified and competent EL teachers or school leaders who feel adequately prepared to address EL needs.

Funding Adequacy

  • In 2016–17, California needed $16,800 per pupil versus the current $12,750 for all students even to have the opportunity to meet the goals set by the State Board. That higher amount is still less than spending by Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts—states where salaries and other costs are similarly high.
  • Recent improved funding for disadvantaged students often serves merely to restore what the recession’s austerity budgets took away.


  • Pension debt will have major equity implications in the short and long term as pension obligations affect district solvency, funding adequacy, and the teacher labor market.
  • Districts already anticipate that ballooning pension costs will outpace revenue and lead to budget cuts likely to affect classroom level spending.

School Construction and Capital Projects

  • California’s facilities funding formula remains inequitable and regressive.
  • The greatest needs are in districts with increasing enrollment and older buildings. Those districts typically have more lower income and non-White households, and are usually less able to raise local revenue.


  • LCFF as implemented “continuous improvement” but without a measurement system to gauge whether an improvement strategy is working, or what it means to be on track. Decision-makers and stakeholders have no practical equity indicator system providing guidance on what resources, staffing, and data a district needs to address root causes.
  • Schools can get high overall ratings even if they are failing to support subgroups. Data do not associate improvement projects with specific goals, or enable administrators and teachers to monitor progress and make timely interventions. The data do not allow comparisons between local indicators across schools.
  • Parents and other stakeholders do not have enough information to make informed choices or push for change.
  • The hypothesis that devolved politics reduces inequity has no clear evidentiary support, yet. There is some encouraging evidence associating LCFF funding increases with improved achievement and graduation rates.

Meaningful Engagement: Participation and Politics

  • Districts that prioritize the participation of historically underserved families, and develop participants’ capacity for two-way conversations that specifically address racial bias, created conditions that more intentionally reflect the LCFF’s underlying assumptions of local control.

Whole Child Development: The Science of Equity

  • A convergence of recent research in the brain sciences and human development warrants new optimism for the progress of educational opportunity.
  • A “whole child equity” framework encompasses screening, interventions, and supports that will, because of the brain’s malleability, prevent or mitigate the effects of adversity and chronic stress on academic and other student outcomes.

Equity Indicators and Quality Data: A Civil Right

  • California collects a great deal of data that could help policymakers and educators better see and close equity gaps in resource allocation, educational readiness, quality, promising practices, and outcomes.
  • Well-documented problems with data quality, accessibility, comparability, and connectivity—from basic accounting structures to sharing promising practices—reflect and reinforce poor incentives to make equity a priority.

This paper is a synthesis of the implications of Getting Down to Facts II research for equity in California.