It’s almost cliché to declare that California spends more on K-12 education than any other single budget program. Public schools are obviously a top priority for increased state funding and for the attention of state policy makers.

But schools aren’t the most richly-funded government function. That distinction goes to Medi-Cal, the state’s healthcare program for poor families.

This year, funding from all sources to K-12 education is estimated to be $57.7 billion. For Medi-Cal, spending will top $60.7 billion, for a $3 billion difference. Even after proposing an increase in K-12 spending by nearly $2 billion next year, the state would still spend more than a billion dollars more on healthcare for poor Californians than on public schools.

The lesson here is not that elected leaders are dissembling or conspiring to enrich a safety net program at the expense of schools. After all, more than half of Medi-Cal spending is from federal funds designated for California, over which state officials have little control. But these complex federal-state formulas also drive state spending to a large degree.

The point is that healthcare – for the poor, children, public employees and retirees – is the insatiable guest who will not leave the dinner table. Any prospect of increasing our investment in the future, for schools, colleges, public works and resource protection, must confront the growing cost of and demand for healthcare. This will be the essential battleground for the direction of state policy over the next decade.