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(CALMATTERS) – Money talks — but actions speak louder than dollar bills. 

That’s the double-edged sword facing California as it pours an unprecedented amount of funding into a public school system grappling with declining enrollment, persistent shortages of educatorsand substitute teachers, and educational achievement gaps that only widened during the pandemic. 

And it was the unspoken backdrop to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s much-publicized trip last week to Washington, D.C., where he accepted an award recognizing California’s approach to public education, including its “historic financial investments to ensure educational equity.” 

“The education budget in California was $170 billion” last year, Newsom said at the start of his acceptance speech. “I think it’s larger than the entire budgets of all but two states in the country. I say that not to impress you, but to impress upon you that what we do has consequences.” 

The challenge now facing California leaders: translating that massive investment into effective policies and measurable results. 

Recently released, first-of-its-kind state data underscores just how far there is to go: About 17% of public school classes were taught by teachers with less than full credentials in the 2020-21 school year, according to figures published in late June by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. 

In eight of California’s 10 largest school districts, underqualified teachers were more likely to teach classes at schools with the highest percentages of low-income students than at schools with the lowest percentages of low-income students, according to an analysis from CalMatters’ Joe Hong and Erica Yee

  • Los Angeles Unified had the largest disparity among non-charter schools: The rate of fully credentialed teachers was 22 percentage points higher at schools serving more affluent families than at schools serving more low-income students, according to the CalMatters analysis. 
  • Saroja Warner of the research nonprofit WestEd“It’s sort of this perfect storm in high-poverty communities. Teachers are another thing they don’t have access to.” 
  • Kai Matthews of UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools“There are counties where there isn’t a teacher preparation program in a 50-mile radius. … It’s almost impossible to get teachers to go to these areas.” 

One of the ways California is seeking to improve educational outcomes in high-poverty areas: A whopping $4.1 billion investment over five years to create new and further develop existing “community schools,” which offer wraparound services such as mental health care, pediatric appointments and other social programs to students and their families. 

  • Deanna Niebuhr, California policy director for the Opportunity Institute and who has worked to develop community schools, told the Los Angeles Times“It’s an important moment, and a serious moment, with this amount of money. It’s not clear that this will work. But we believe it’s our best chance for real change in education.”

But it may not be easy to track the relationship between spending and program effectiveness. Some California school districts have refused to disclose how they’ve spent massive sums of COVID stimulus money, a CalMatters investigation found. Statewide, schools received $33.5 billion in one-time state and federal funds — yet no centralized state or federal database exists to show how they spent the money.