Survival Guide: Your California School District

If California were a country, we would have the 8th largest economy in the world.  Our tech industry is so kick-ass it's now easily recognized the world over by simply its geographic location with a hit HBO series to boot, and people all over the planet dream of living here in the Golden State.  But stick around long enough and you’ll start to realize that our public schools are a little kooky.  

Depressing but true, California regularly comes in at or near the bottom of national school rankings for both per-student funding and K-12 achievement (see this 2015 article in the SF Gate for more detail).  In fact, California public school funding distribution feels a little bit like triage: everyone scrambles to plug the biggest gaps, knowing that sacrifices will need to be made.  When our state increased taxes a few years ago on high-earners they concentrated school aid on districts with high levels of poverty and English Language Learners through Concentration Grants.   In more affluent communities, the expectation is that families will plug the gap in funding themselves.  Whichever type of district you end up in, your child will be impacted by school funding policies one way or another.  Here’s what we’ve come up with as the biggest factors affecting a school district in California:    

PTA Fundraising is not just popsicles and bake sales.

Across California, millions of dollars are raised every year by elementary school PTAs to fill the funding gap, especially in affluent communities that don’t get extra government funding.  School PTAs in these districts have been known to auction off holidays in Hawaii and fancy dinners cooked by private chefs, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for teacher salaries, teacher training, classroom supplies and enrichment for their students.   However, every school district has its own rules about PTA fundraising.  Some districts restrict per-school PTA funding in preference for a pooled district fund, to ensure equity among schools in the district.  These districts sometimes have a harder time raising money, if parents feel like their money is disappearing into a “black hole” and not reaching their kids.  Do your research into how a school district distributes funding and how the PTA operates in partnership with the district.  There can be huge variation on this issue across the Bay Area and California.   

“Basic Aid” districts are anything but basic.  

Drive past Ross school in Marin County and you might think you’re looking at a college campus.  Basic Aid districts are heavy hitters, almost entirely based in small, super-pricey enclaves (think Tiburon, Hillsborough), so if you’re interested, your biggest challenge to getting into these districts will probably be affording a property with the high price tag.  “Basic aid” (ironically) describes a district where local property and parcel taxes fund the school over the state threshold limit and allow additional capital (anything over and above the threshold) to be distributed directly to the school.   Many of these districts also have active PTAs raising money from parents as well.  

Look closely at where school district money is spent.

Most schools have to make hard choices about where they concentrate their money.  What’s important to you?  Maybe you want a strong art and music program, technology/science enrichment, or you think your child might qualify for GATE.  Chances are, your school won’t be able to provide all of these programs, so they’ve chosen to focus on one or two.  In addition, some middle schools offer an “honors” curriculum while others believe that this differentiation increases inequity among students. Figure out what’s important to your family so you know what you’re comfortable with and what your expectations are for your school.     

A truly "great school" is one that best fits your family.  It's different for everyone. 

Don’t make the mistake of moving to a neighborhood with a loose idea of “great schools” based on data alone.  Every child has his or her own needs and every family has theirs.  Figuring out what your values and hopes are for your child's education is every bit as important as researching test scores and funding.  It's important to take other factors into account when moving to a new neighborhood, like how stressed you're going to be if you have an insane mortgage, or your kids are going to have to share bedrooms because your house will be shoebox-sized.  Sometimes a school in a "bad" district will be rich in state funding and diversity, something many affluent neighborhoods in the Bay Area sadly lack.  If you're interested in local details about a neighborhood and whether it will be a good fit for your family, check out our super-duper neighborhood search engine, Hoodvibe, to see how each Bay Area hood stacks up for schools, cost of housing, and commute time and get recommendations from top agents who will get you street-by-street details and steer you in the right direction before you make your big move.