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Is California Ready To Pay To Fix Schools?

By Mark Baldassare, research director, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on April 30, 2006

Californians 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?

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 funds.

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 election.


PPIC Statewide Survey: Special Survey on Education, April 2006

PPIC Statewide Survey: Special Survey on Education, April 2005

School Resources and Academic Standards in California: Lessons from the Schoolhouse