More money, same problems: Despite billions spent on education, California NAEP scores are below national average

When national test score data revealed California students scored well below the national average, Gov. Gavin Newsom pointed out his state experienced “less learning loss” than others thanks to “record investments.”

What Newsom did not address was why the state ranked near the bottom 25% among states despite spending so much on education.

“California focused on keeping kids safe during the pandemic while making record investments to mitigate learning loss and transforming our education system,” the governor said in a press release about the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. “While California’s students experienced less learning loss than those in most other states during the pandemic, these results are not a celebration but a call to action – students are struggling academically and we need to keep getting them the resources they need to thrive.”

Newsom credited “less learning loss” to the $24 billion his administration spent on education during the past three years.

But NAEP data, when compared to per-pupil state funding data, do not show a correlation between spending and academic success.

States with lower levels of learning loss – California, Alabama, Hawaii, Illinois and Louisiana – spent as little as $10,000 per student (Alabama) and as much as $16,000 (Hawaii and Illinois). California spends about $13,000 per student. 

States with steeper test score declines, such as Delaware, Minnesota, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, spent as little as $12,000 per pupil (West Virginia) and as much as $22,000 (District of Columbia). 

Thus, among states with comparable funding, some states performed much better academically, while others suffered. Notably, lesser-funded Alabama significantly outscored the District of Columbia, which spends more than double Alabama per pupil. 

Critics argue figures such as these demonstrate that pumping more money into the school system is not a recipe for success, in spite of Newsom’s claims for California. 

“Newsom cherry-picked the data,” writes Dan Walters for Cal Matters. “Newsom neglected to mention that students in the two red states he often singles out for scorn, Florida and Texas, scored much higher in the NAEP tests. Florida was 6th highest overall and Texas was well above national averages.  

“State-by-state data also indicated – not for the first time – that there is no direct correlation between academic achievement and school spending.”  

California’s $24 billion may have mitigated learning loss, as Newsom says, but its students scored at or below average in every single category, according to the NAEP.