Santa Clara County school funding spurs disparity
A student walks by a mural of Cesar Chavez, namesake of an elementary school in the Alum Rock Union School District that will become an early learning center. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

In Santa Clara County, not all school districts are created equal. 

In affluent neighborhoods near Saratoga Union and Los Altos Elementary school districts where the median price of a home is more than $2 million, according to censusreporter.org, property taxes boost student funding and programs remain robust.

The situation is not as rosy in other parts of the county, including school districts like Alum Rock Union and Franklin-McKinley Elementary, where nearby median home prices are between $589,100 and $686,100. In those districts, music classes, math and reading coaches, robotics and counselors are reduced or cut because there aren’t enough property taxes to resolve the funding gap. Teacher retention also becomes a struggle with noncompetitive salaries.  

For Alum Rock Union School District, funding is about 16% less per pupil than Los Altos Elementary School District and 25% lower than Saratoga Union School District. For Franklin-McKinley Elementary School District, it’s 14% less funding per pupil compared to Los Altos Elementary School District and 23% less compared to Saratoga Union Elementary School District.

Peter Ortiz, board president of the Santa Clara County Office of Education and a candidate for the San Jose City Council District 5 seat, said schools in East San Jose have crumbling facilities and classrooms lacking resources like adequate air conditioning. He said not having enough teachers leads to crowded classrooms and a lower quality of education.

“If you live in a wealthy neighborhood where you have high property value, you’re going to get more funding for your education system,” he said. “That directly correlates to, unfortunately, the color of your skin and your socioeconomic status.”

According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2018-19 academic year, Los Altos Elementary School District received a total of $21,079 per student of which $18,383 came from property taxes or basic aid. Saratoga Union Elementary School District received $23,755 per student of which $20,706 came from property taxes. 

Alum Rock Union School District received $17,788 per student of which $5,817 came from property taxes. Franklin-McKinley Elementary School District received $18,213 per student of which $7,844 came from property taxes.

Lisa Andrew, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, which advocates for underserved students to receive a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, said school districts need to be equitably funded, but currently it’s all about ZIP codes.

School funding can not be primarily dependent on property taxes and average daily attendance, she said. As long as this is the formula, the disparity will not change no matter how much money the state pours into the funding-per-daily-attendance model, she told San José Spotlight. Even though some schools get supplemental and concentration funding, it doesn’t come close to making up the gap.

“There are the big haves and the big have nots,”  she said.

No easy fix

Education advocates are working with state legislators toward long-term solutions for East San Jose. The state has a wealth of money, Andrew said, and it needs to be equitably distributed.

According to state data, in 2021, more than 78.4% of Alum Rock Union School District and 75.2% of Franklin-McKinley students were socioeconomically disadvantaged compared with almost 6.7% of Los Altos and 3.4% of Saratoga Union school districts.

“For those who have the means… if they’re in an area that doesn’t have well-funded schools, they can send their children to private schools,” Ortiz said. “But for our youth in East San Jose… for many of them their best shot is the neighborhood public school. Unfortunately, the way our state funds it, it’s inherently racist and discriminatory.”

Minh Pham, Alum Rock Union School District trustee, said the lack of property taxes limits what the school district can provide students—from school supplies to visual and performing arts programs, field trips and after school homework support to sports. It also prevents the district from adequately combating learning loss from the pandemic like English and math supplemental programs.

“It’s like having a child start off the race with a ball and chain tied to their legs,” Pham told San José Spotlight.

The difference in funding also affects teacher retention, he said. Alum Rock can’t compete with Palo Alto, Saratoga or Cupertino, where pay is higher, Pham said.

“We have lost more than our fair share of teachers because our funding situation puts us at a disadvantage,” he said.

George Sanchez, trustee for the Franklin-McKinley School District, said there is always going to be a discrepancy due to property tax dollars and school enrollment. Sanchez said lack of funding hampers the ability of the school district to hire tutors to help second language learners and foster kids or reduce class sizes. Sanchez said kindergarten through third grade students would also benefit from additional reading teachers.

“We can’t spend the money we don’t have,” he told San José Spotlight. “We do what we can with the funding from the state. Ultimately, we want the funding level to be equal for all of our kids so they can be successful.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly calculated the per-pupil totals in various San Jose school districts. The disparity still exists, but is smaller than previously reported.

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