By Mark Baldassare, research director, Public
Policy Institute of CaliforniaCalifornians are looking for answers and new ideas after seeing little
effect from the most recent package of school reforms aimed at improving the
state's K-12 education system. Now, they face a June ballot initiative that
promises a free public preschool education to every 4-year-old. Will they put
their hopes in this ambitious proposal?
This opinion article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on April 30,
The answer is not clear cut. Certainly, Californians are fed up with the
state of education. This fact has changed little in the eight years that the
PPIC Statewide Survey has tracked public opinion. In spring 1998, residents
rated schools as one of the state's top two problems, with half saying the
quality of K-12 education was a big problem and a similar number believing that
California students ranked below other states in standardized test scores. This
month's poll reveals how entrenched these attitudes are: Californians rank K-12
schools right behind the hot-button issue of immigration on their list of
concerns, six in 10 say the K-12 quality of education is a big problem and half
view the state's student test scores as below the U.S. average.
State Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly are vying to be
the Democratic gubernatorial challenger to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at a time
when voters rate education as the top issue in the governor's race. Six in 10
voters say the candidates' positions on education are very important. Both
challengers offer plans for improving K-12 schools, and both tout their support
for the Proposition 82 preschool initiative as they seek support from a largely
undecided primary electorate.
Schwarzenegger has his own proposals and opposes Proposition 82, but he can
take no political comfort in the fact that just one in six voters say the
quality of K-12 schools improved over the past two years of his leadership.
The public's lack of confidence in state stewardship of the education system
goes far beyond the governor's office. While half of voters disapprove of
Schwarzenegger's handling of K-12 education, two in three also disapprove of the
Legislature's efforts in this area. And four in 10 voters don't even know enough
about the job of the California superintendent of public instruction to evaluate
his performance. Californians rank the state government behind their local
school districts, principals and teachers when asked who they trust the most to
make spending decisions at local schools.
What exactly is the public's beef with the state's K-12 school system? Beyond
commonly held perceptions of underfunded schools and underachieving students,
even more voters believe that much of the money spent on schools is wasted.
The public is disappointed in school performance on what they consider the
most important goals of K-12 - teaching the basics, college preparation and
workforce readiness. About half rate the K-12 system as "not so good" or "poor"
in teaching students the basics and preparing them for college, while six in 10
give it similarly dismal ratings for work force preparation.
Specific concerns about school performance paint a portrait of a K-12
education system that appears to be failing to keep pace with the monumental
social and economic changes that are occurring in California today.
Two in three Californians describe the high school dropout rate in the
state's schools as a big problem, and many are especially concerned about the
drop-out rate in lower-income areas. While residents overwhelmingly support the
high school exit exam in concept, many also are worried that students in
low-income areas will fail this test. Even though teacher quality is not seen as
a problem in the state's education system as a whole, six in 10 Californians are
very concerned that schools in lower-income areas have a shortage of good
teachers. Voters supported an initiative to end bilingual education in 1998, but
now they worry that English language learners are at a competitive disadvantage.
While a decade of school reforms has done little to change the public's grim
assessment of the state's progress, Californians still support new education
efforts. Voters of both parties support new programs to address high school
dropouts, low pass rates from the high school exit exam and unequal access to
good teachers and facilities in low-income areas - even if these new programs
cost the state more money. As for their local schools, which go largely
unscathed given the blistering critique of the state system, half of voters say
that the state needs to be giving them more money, too.
But where will this money come from in an era when the public has so little
faith in state government? Today, most voters who say they want more school
funding are interested in spending only other people's money. Voters across the
political spectrum oppose raising the sales tax or the property tax to pay for
additional school funding.
They are happy to see the rich pay higher taxes for this purpose - six in 10
voters say we should raise income taxes on the wealthiest to provide more school
The idea of taxing the wealthy to pay for new state programs has a familiar
ring. In November 2004, Californians passed Proposition 63, which expanded
mental health programs, using this vehicle. And Proposition 82 goes back to this
source with a tax increase on individual income over $400,000 and couples income
over $800,000. Today, six in 10 Californians believe that a preschool education
is essential to a students' success in K-12, and most of them support this
initiative. A narrow majority of voters support Proposition 82 in our recent
poll (51 percent yes, 40 percent no).
Proposition 82 supporters may be cheered by the fact that voters like the
idea of raising taxes on the wealthy, but voters would also like to use this
same tax increase for K-12 programs. For instance, while four in 10 voters are
very concerned about preschool access in lower-income areas, six in 10 are
equally worried about high school dropouts and a lack of good teachers. Will
voters opt for a tax on the wealthy to start a preschool program or be inclined
to hold off and support a ballot measure that addresses K-12 programs?
The 2006 elections look to be reruns of recent years - statewide candidates
and initiative campaigns harping on the need for more education spending,
without asking the average voters to pick up the tab for new programs such as
public preschool. For their part, Californians are unwilling to commit
themselves to tax increases for education so long as they see the current
education system as lacking in accountability, transparency and efficiency.
Instead of offering their visions for improving K-12 education, politicians seem
more interested in giving voters a free ride and leaving the difficult issues
involved in meaningful change to those who govern in the aftermath of this