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Californians Want Change in Public Schools but Balk at Higher Taxes

Worried About State Budget Cuts, Residents Say Better Use of Funds Is Key

SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 29, 2009—Californians worry that the state’s budget gap will hurt public schools, but they are also increasingly likely to say that spending money more wisely—rather than just spending more—will lead to better quality K–12 education, according to a survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) with funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Residents believe the public schools have plenty of room for improvement: A solid majority of residents (58%) say that the system needs major changes. While most (61%) agree that more state funding would lead to higher quality public schools, there is even stronger agreement (85%) that better use of existing state funds would improve schools. When asked to choose among three options for improving public education, half (49%) say that better use of existing funds is the answer—12 points higher than two years ago (37% April 2007). Only 6 percent say increased funding is the key (11% 2007); 43 percent choose a combination of better use of funds and increased funding (48% 2007).

Although most Californians (56%) are very concerned that the state’s budget gap will cause significant cuts to schools, they are divided about whether they would be willing to pay higher taxes to keep funding at current levels: 48 percent would and 49 percent would not. During the last economic downturn, Californians were much more willing to raise their own taxes for K–12 education (67% in June 2003 and January 2004).

“Californians are concerned about school quality and they’re concerned about school funding. But that hasn’t translated into more support for taxes and spending,” says Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. “They’re looking for reform and innovation that can lead to gains in school performance and student achievement.”

Most Want K–12 Schools Spared in State Budget

In a recession that has hit California particularly hard and facing a fiscal crisis that threatens every part of the state budget, a majority of residents (58%) say that K–12 education is the area they most want to protect from spending cuts. Californians have held this view since June 2003, the first time PPIC asked the question and a period when the state was also struggling with a budget deficit. Today, majorities across parties, regions, and demographic groups agree.

For public school parents, the state’s budget troubles are more than a future concern. Most (72%) say their children’s schools have already been hurt a lot (28%) or somewhat (44%) by recent cuts.

In less than a month, Californians will decide a package of ballot measures that address the state’s budget gap and would affect school funding. The results could change the way two earlier initiatives passed by voters will be carried out: Proposition 98, the 1988 measure that established minimum funding levels for public schools and community colleges, and Proposition 37, which created the state lottery in 1984 to provide more money for schools. In light of the current budget situation, how important is it to voters to guarantee minimum funding levels for schools each year? A strong majority of Californians (68%) say it’s very important. Residents also feel that it’s very important (68%) for schools to get a dedicated stream of funding from state lottery profits.

When it comes to determining how state money should be spent on public schools, residents would prefer that their local school districts (49%) or local schools (33%) rather than the state (13%) make the decisions. Most agree (77%) that local schools should have more flexibility than they do now in how to spend money. In another indication that they have greater confidence in their local schools than in the state’s decisionmakers, more Californians say they would vote yes on a local school construction bond measure (60%) or new parcel tax to provide more money for local schools (54%) than would be willing to pay higher taxes to maintain K–12 funding levels statewide (48%). But support for a local school construction bond falls to 54 percent among likely voters-—just short of the 55 percent required for passage. The percentage of all adults and likely voters who would approve this type of bond is the lowest since the PPIC Statewide Survey began asking this question in 1999.

High School Dropout Rate Seen as Big Problem

What needs improvement in the schools? There is little consensus. Teacher quality (13%), class size and overcrowding (11%), and teaching the basics (10%) are the top responses to this open-ended question.

When asked specifically about three education issues—the high school dropout rate, student achievement, and teacher quality—the responses are strikingly different. A strong majority (70%) say the dropout rate is a big problem, with blacks (85%) and Latinos (82%) much more likely than whites (65%) and Asians (51%) to hold this view. Forty-three percent of residents say student achievement is a big problem, with blacks (54%) more likely than others (43% whites, 41% Latinos, 38% Asians) to agree. Teacher quality is seen as a big problem by just 29 percent; blacks (42%) are more likely than others (29% Asians, 29% whites, 25% Latinos) to hold this negative view.

Californians got a reality check on the high school dropout rate last year, when the state used a new student tracking system and found that nearly one in four students in the class of 2007 had dropped out of high school. Latino and black students had even higher rates. Today, 60 percent of residents in the PPIC survey say they are very concerned that students in lower-income areas have a higher dropout rate. This is a 7-point increase since the new dropout figures were released (53% April 2008). Blacks (82%) are far more likely than others (60% Latinos, 59% whites, 52% Asians) to be very concerned.

Although nearly all Californians (96%) say it is important for K–12 schools to prepare students for college, less than half say the school system does an excellent (4%) or good (42%) job of doing so.

Local Schools Get Passing Grades, State Leaders Fare Poorly

Even as many Californians see education quality as a big problem, 53 percent give their neighborhood schools a grade of A (19%) or B (34%). Public school parents have an even more positive view: 63 percent of these parents award their schools a B or higher, with 25 percent giving A grades to local schools and 38 percent giving B’s.

Californians give their state leaders far worse grades. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s overall job approval rating matches his record low (32%) and marks the second time a majority of Republicans have disapproved of his performance (54% today, 53% March 2009). His approval rating on education is even lower. Just 20 percent approve, a historic low that has dropped 5 points since April 2008 and 16 points since April 2007. Majorities across parties disapprove of the way he is handling K-12 education (65% Democrats, 56% independents, 52% Republicans).

The legislature’s overall approval rating remains low (23% vs. 18% last month) and drops to a record low 18 percent on education issues. More than six in 10 (63%) disapprove of the way the legislature is handling education. Majorities across parties, regions, and racial/ethnic groups share this view.


  • Obama retains 70 percent approval rating—page 11
    In stark contrast to the ratings of California elected officials, President Obama’s approval rating has been at least 70 percent each of the three times that PPIC has surveyed California residents.
  • Parents have high aspirations for their children—page 14
    An overwhelming majority (85%) of parents want their youngest child to get a college or graduate degree, and many parents (45%) are very confident that they have the resources and information needed to make this happen. Fewer (24%) have the same level of confidence in the resources provided by their local schools. White parents and those with higher incomes are much more likely than lower-income or Latino parents to be very confident in their own resources and those of their local schools.
  • Californians recognize resource inequities—page 21
    Nearly eight in 10 Californians (77%) say schools in lower-income areas have less money for teachers and classroom materials than those in wealthier areas, a finding that holds true across all regions, demographic groups, and political parties. If new money were available, a large majority (70%) would spend more of it on lower-income schools.
  • High school exit exam is popular—page 22
    Most Californians (69%) think students should pass the exit exam to graduate, with Latinos (80%) most likely to agree. Most Californians are very (55%) or somewhat (32%) concerned that students in lower-income communities have higher failure rates on the test.
  • Career technical education gets strong backing—page 25
    Vocational education is very important to most (71%) of Californians. But just 31 percent of those who say it’s very important think schools are doing a good or excellent job at preparing students for the workforce.
  • Californians value data collection—page 26
    The development of data systems to track student, school, and fiscal information is a state and national priority that residents also feel is very (56%) or somewhat (34%) important.


This is the fifth PPIC Statewide Survey focusing on K–12 education. It is part of a series funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that is intended to inform state policymakers, encourage discussion, and raise public awareness about a variety of K–12, higher education, environment, and population issues. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,502 California adult residents, including 2,250 interviewed on landline telephones and 252 on cell phones. Interviews took place April 7-21, 2009. They were conducted in English, Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese), Vietnamese, and Korean. The sampling error for the total sample is ±2 percent and slightly larger for subgroups. For more information on methodology, see page 29. This is the 97th PPIC Statewide Survey in a series that has generated a database of responses from more than 206,000 Californians.

Mark Baldassare is president and CEO of PPIC, where he holds the Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Public Policy. He is founder of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has directed since 1998.

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.

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