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Press Release · January 11, 1999

Californians Clamor For Education Reform; Lack Faith That State Government Can Make It Happen

SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 11, 1999–As Governor Gray Davis rings in an “Era of Higher Expectations,” a new survey by the Public Policy Institute of California reveals a public that deeply distrusts state government and has little confidence in its ability to tackle important challenges such as education reform.

“If Governor Davis is serious about this new era, he must first focus on raising the public’s expectations about state government, because they couldn’t be much lower,” said PPIC Statewide Survey director Mark Baldassare. “At this point, even if he clears the bar he has set for himself on education, the Governor will have a hard time convincing the public that he and the State Legislature are responsible for the progress.”

Californians are more likely to name education than any other issue as the one they would like to see the Governor and State Legislature work on in 1999. At the same time, 58 percent say they have “only some” confidence, 21 percent very little confidence, and 9 percent no confidence in their leaders’ capacity to solve the state’s most significant problems. By a three-to-one margin (75% to 21%), Californians believe that the initiative process will address state issues more effectively than laws passed by their elected officials.

Ambitious Wish List for Education Reform

Since the November elections, Californians have reached a high degree of consensus about education reform and overwhelmingly support a number of specific proposals. Given that they are more likely to name teachers as the source of problems in K-12 public schools than any other reason, it is not surprising that there is strong support for proposals that would improve the quality of instruction. Eighty-four percent favor increasing teachers’ pay based on merit, and a similar number support increased training and tougher credential standards. There is also strong support for efforts to increase standards for student learning. Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed favor a requirement that students pass achievement tests before promotion to the next grade, and 91 percent support remedial after-school and summer school programs for under-achieving students.

Many of the reforms supported by the public will be costly. But even with the state facing a deficit, Californians are consistent about their concern for improving education. Eighty-five percent say that spending on K-12 education should be given a high priority. However, it is not clear that they understand the trade-offs, because 56 percent and 58 percent also give high priority to spending on public health and welfare and on public colleges and universities, respectively. Only support for spending on corrections, such as prisons, has dropped significantly since 1994 (from 42% to 26%).

Public Also Wants Infrastructure Investments

Despite limited funds, Californians also voice support for infrastructure investments to help prepare the state for rapid population growth over the next two decades. Seven in ten residents say it is very important to build K-12 public schools, colleges, and universities, one in four say it is somewhat important, and only 3 percent say it is unimportant. Fifty percent say it is very important, 39 percent somewhat important, and 8 percent unimportant to build and expand water storage facilities. Nearly half believe that building roads, highways, and freeways is very important, while 42 percent say it is somewhat important, and only 9 percent unimportant.

This possibly unrealistic assessment of how far public dollars can go may be fueled in part by tremendous optimism about the state’s future. Sixty-three percent say that things are going in the right direction, while 28 percent think that the state is headed in the wrong direction. Consumer confidence also remains strong. Thirty-one percent of Californians report being better off financially than they were a year ago, 14 percent worse off, and 54 percent in the same situation. Looking ahead a year, 43 percent think they will be better off, 7 percent worse off, and 48 percent in the same situation.

About the Survey

The purpose of the PPIC Statewide Survey is to develop an in-depth profile of the social, economic, and political forces at work in California elections and in shaping the state’s public policies. The survey is intended to provide the public and policymakers with relevant information on the following: Californians’ overall impressions of key policy issues and of quality of life, the differences in social and political attitudes among demographic groups and across different regions of the state, the characteristics of groups that are shaping the state’s elections and policy debates, and the political attitudes underlying “voter distrust” of government and low voter turnout.

Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,022 California adult residents interviewed from December 4 to December 13, 1998. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for the 1,562 voters is +/- 2.5% and for the 996 likely voters is +/- 3.5%. For additional information on survey methodology, see page 27.

Dr. Mark Baldassare is a senior fellow at PPIC. He is founder and director of the Orange County Annual Survey at UC Irvine. For over two decades, he has conducted surveys for major news organizations, including the Orange County Edition of the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, KCAL-TV, KRON-TV, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to independent, nonpartisan research on economic, social, and political issues that affect the lives of Californians. The Institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.