Every year, taxpayers write a $7,000 check, on average, to educate each of the state's 6.3 million public school students.

Some, including the governor, say that's plenty. Others say that's nowhere near enough.

The reality is, no one really knows and we're not likely to get an answer anytime soon.

The state has never sat down and put a price on a year's worth of reading, writing and 'rithmatic, not to mention art, history, music, librarians, nurses and school counselors.

The $50 billion annual education budget is basically an arbitrary figure generated by how much money there is as determined by Proposition 98 funding formulas and whatthe Legislature and governor are willing to spend on schools.

In 2002, the Legislature decided to find out what it costs to educate a child and put the task to a newly created Quality Education Commission. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, along with the Gates Foundation, chipped in $250,000 to pay for the adequacy study.

Two years later, the commission has never met and the money sits unused.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has bucked the legislative requirement to appoint seven members to the commission, stranding the other six members already appointed by the Legislature and the state superintendent of public instruction.

On Thursday, Secretary of Education Richard Riordan, an appointee of the governor, announced that the governor wants to dump the Quality Education Commission along with 100 other state commissions.

Instead, he wants to create the Governor's Commission on Education Excellence, which would not be required to address adequacy. Riordan would only say Thursday that the commission would be looking at a broad range of education issues.

State education leaders and civil rights advocates, already upset at the delay in convening the QEC, said its elimination could mean the cost of educating children will remain a mystery.

"The people who really don't want to know the answer are trying to keep us from getting the answer," said John Affeldt, attorney for San Francisco-based Public Advocates. "I don't think he should be allowed to get off with this governor's advisory commission ... where it's just his cronies that he gets to appoint."

About 30 other states have already done adequacy studies, with per-pupil costs ranging from a high of nearly $16,000 annually in New York schools with the highest regional costs and the most low-income students to a low-end cost of about $5,500 for each student in Illinois.

California based its Quality Education Commission on Oregon, where the model "represents an effective tool for estimating the amount of statewide funding required to operate Oregon's schools at specified levels of performance," according to the commission's Web site.

In Oregon, the result is a matrix that allows policy makers to input different scenarios, including variations in class size, staffing levels, classrooms supplies, various programs for special education and at-risk students, librarians and more.

The matrix then spits out a cost.

Cost estimates for a prototype Oregon school that provides a quality education fall around $7,000 per student.

Critics, however, say adequacy studies are based on pseudo-science and are unreliable.

Schwarzenegger has appeared to shy away from the adequacy idea and is instead focusing on efficiency, said Mike Kirst, Stanford education professor and an expert on education finance.

That means before the governor will even talk about adequacy, he wants to know if we're getting the most out of the money we're already spending, whether or not it's enough, he added.

Ultimately, the adequacy question might have to be answered in a lawsuit — as has happened in many other states — with a judge deciding how much money the state needs to spend on each child to provide a quality education.

"If there is a lawsuit, you're going to have the plaintiffs arguing for more money," said Marshall Smith, director of education programs at the Packard Foundation. "I think the governor has to get some position that is not just defensive, saying that everything is fine. I think he's got to be able to have a response."

In the meantime, however, "we have to take the money back," Smith said of the $250,000 grant.

Contact Jill Tucker at jtucker@angnewspapers.com.