skip to Main Content

Concern Rises Over Impact of Budget Cuts on Public Schools

Ratings for State Leaders on Education Hit New Lows—Federal Government Seen as Doing Too Little

SAN FRANCISCO, April 28, 2010—As California once again confronts a multibillion dollar budget deficit, concern has grown considerably among the state’s residents about the consequences of spending cuts on kindergarten through 12th grade education, according to an annual survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) with funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Californians today are more likely than last year to believe that funding for their local schools is inadequate, and parents of public school students are far more likely to say that state budget cuts have had a big effect on their children’s schools.

Most Californians (62%) believe there is not enough state funding going to their public schools (26% just enough, 6% more than enough), a 12-point increase since April 2009. A similar majority (62%) say they are very concerned the state’s budget gap will cause significant spending cuts in K–12 education, up 6 points since last April. Among public school parents, 43 percent say their children’s schools have been affected a lot by recent state budget cuts, 15 points higher than a year ago. Another 38 percent say their schools have been affected somewhat, and only 17 percent say they have seen no effect.

When asked how they feel about some potential ways schools may deal with decreased funding, an overwhelming number of Californians say they are very concerned (73%) or somewhat concerned (19%) about teacher layoffs. More than half are very concerned about class sizes getting bigger (59%), having fewer days of school instruction (56%), or elimination of art and music programs (56%). About half (49%) are very concerned about elimination of after-school and summer programs.

“At a time when Californians are looking for reforms that will improve student achievement, more Californians are seeing the direct effect of the state’s budget problems on children, teachers, and resources in their local schools,” says Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. “They expect better results from their leaders in Sacramento and in Washington.”

Californians Want Schools Protected from Cuts

K–12 education is the largest spending category in the state budget and the area that a majority of Californians (63%) most want to protect from spending cuts; far fewer residents name other spending categories as those they would most like to protect (14% health and human services, 13% higher education, and 7% prisons). This view holds across parties and demographic groups, and is one that a majority of Californians have held since PPIC first asked the question in June 2003.

Californians’ concerns translate to record low approval ratings for the way state leaders are handling schools. While Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s overall approval rating (24%) matches his record low reached last month, his rating for handling K–12 public education is an even lower 16 percent—down 4 points from last year, 9 points from 2008, and 20 points from 2007. The legislature’s overall approval rating (16%) is similar to the record low recorded last month (14%), and its rating for handling public schools is at 15 percent—down 3 points from last year, 6 points from 2008, and 14 points from 2007.

Nearly all Californians say the gubernatorial candidates’ positions on K–12 education are very important (62%) or somewhat important (30%). Most Democrats (72%) and independents (59%) consider them very important, while Republicans (46%) are less likely to say so. Three-fourths (74%) of Californians say that improving education should be a high priority for the next governor.

The Obama administration’s education policy efforts have not won the president high marks in California either. While his overall approval rating (61%) remains much higher than those of Sacramento officials, Californians give him a much lower rating for his handling of K–12 education policy. Less than half (46%) approve—a 12-point decline since last year—while 28 percent disapprove and 26 percent have no opinion. A majority of Californians (59%) say the federal government is not doing enough to improve the K-–12 education system (25% just enough, 7% more than enough).

Dropout Rate Seen as Big Problem

Most Californians (85%) think that the quality of K–12 education is a problem, with a slim majority (53%) viewing it as a big problem. Just over half have said that education quality is a big problem since 2007 (52% 2007, 53% 2008, 51% 2009). Blacks (68%) and whites (60%) today are far more likely than Asians (48%) and Latinos (41%) to see education quality as a big problem.

When it comes to three particular issues—the high school dropout rate, student achievement, and teacher quality—Californians are most likely to see the dropout rate as a big problem (69%). This percentage is similar to previous years (69% 2008, 70% 2009). Concerns about the other issues are higher this year: 48 percent see student achievement as a big problem, up 5 points from April 2009, and 36 percent see teacher quality as big problem, up 7 points from last April. Among public school parents concerns increased more: Half (50%) say student achievement is a big problem, up 11 points from April 2009. And 35 percent say teacher quality is a big problem, up 10 points. Views of student achievement vary among racial and ethnic groups of Californians, with blacks (63%) much more likely to see it as a big problem than Latinos (51%), whites (45%), or Asians (39%).

Poor Marks for College, Workforce Preparation

Are public schools preparing students for college or the workforce? Californians are more likely to say schools are not so good (39%) or poor (14%) at college preparation than to say they are doing a good (37%) or excellent job (4%). Residents’ assessments are worse when asked about workforce preparation. Nearly two in three rated schools as not so good (45%) or poor (19%) in this area, compared to good (28%) or excellent (3%). Public school parents are more likely to give schools positive marks in both areas (49% good or excellent for college preparation, 42% good or excellent for workforce preparation).

Despite their low rankings of the public education system, Californians continue to be more positive about the quality of their local schools. As they have since 2005, more than half of residents (54%) and public school parents (67%) give schools in their neighborhoods a grade of A or B (51% 2005, 55% 2006, 52% 2007, 54% 2008, 53% 2009).

California ranks near the bottom in math and reading scores for grades 4 and 8, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. How well do Californians’ perceptions match the data? Half (49%) accurately view student test scores as below average compared to other states, while 31 percent say test scores are average and 11 percent say above average.

Merit Pay for Teachers Favored

Most Californians favor merit pay for teachers (62% favor, 26% oppose), although they are less likely than adults nationwide to support this frequently discussed policy reform (72% favor, 21% oppose in a 2009 national Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll). Asked about possible criteria to determine merit pay, 69 percent of Californians say that academic improvement of students as measured by standardized tests should determine which teachers get extra money. Residents also support—but at a lower 57 percent—basing merit pay on the academic achievement of students as measured by standardized tests. Californians are move divided over whether length of teaching experience should be a deciding factor in determining merit pay: 48 percent say it should and 49 percent say it should not.

Higher Taxes for Schools? Californians Are Split

Despite their concerns about K–12 spending, Californians are divided in their willingness to pay higher taxes to maintain current levels of funding (49% yes, 47% no), similar to last year (48% yes, 49% no). They are also divided on the question of how best to improve the quality of schools significantly: 45 percent prefer using existing funds more wisely, and 45 percent prefer using existing funds more wisely and increasing the amount of funding. Just 8 percent prefer increased funding alone.

Reflecting their positive views of their own local schools and negative views of the state’s elected leaders, Californians overwhelmingly prefer local control of spending decisions at their local public schools. Half (51%) say local school districts should make the decisions about how to spend state funds in local schools and a third (34%) say local schools themselves should decide. More Californians (63%) would be willing to vote for a local bond measure to pay for school construction projects than would be willing to pay higher taxes to maintain current state funding (49%). A majority of Californians (57%) and about half of likely voters (52%) would vote for a local parcel tax to provide more money for local public schools, but these shares fall short of the two-thirds voter approval required to approve such a tax.

The National Education Association ranks California near the bottom—43rd of 50 states and the District of Columbia—in spending per student. Yet just 37 percent of Californians perceive the state’s per pupil spending as below average. Another 24 percent say it is average, and 26 percent say it is above average.

More Key Findings

  • Parents have higher expectations, less confidence that they can help—page 15
    Nearly nine in 10 parents of public school children would like their youngest child to graduate from college (43%) or earn a graduate degree (44%). The percentage hoping their child will get a graduate degree has increased 5 points since last April and 8 points since April 2005. While most public school parents express at least some confidence that they have the resources and information to help their child achieve their educational goals, the number saying they are very confident has been declining (52% 2005, 45% 2009, 41% today). White parents are far more likely than Latino parents (50% to 29%) to say they are very confident.
  • Should schools in lower-income areas pay teachers higher salaries? Half say yes—page 20
    An overwhelming majority of Californians (80%) say schools in poor neighborhoods lack the same resources—including good teachers and enough classroom materials—as their counterparts in more affluent areas. Half support the concept of paying higher salaries to teachers to work in these schools (51% yes, 44% no).
  • Most favor using school, student performance data to make policy choices—page 22
    Should California collect data about schools, including resources and student performance? A record-high number of residents (60%) say this is very important, and 75 percent say this type of information should be used to make policy decisions about education programs and funding.



    The PPIC Statewide Survey has provided policymakers, the media, and the general public with objective, advocacy-free information on the perceptions, opinions, and public policy preferences of California residents since 1998. This survey is part of an annual series focusing on K–12 public education that began in 2005 and is funded in part by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Its goal is to inform state policymakers, encourage discussion, and raise public awareness about a variety of K–12 issues. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,504 California adult residents interviewed on landlines and cell phones from April 6-20, 2010. Interviews were conducted in English, Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese), Vietnamese, or Korean, according to respondents’ preferences. The sampling error is ±2 percent for all adults, ±2.5 percent for the 2,046 registered voters, ±3 percent for the 1,439 likely voters, ±3 for the 1,056 parents of children 18 or younger, and ±3.5 percent for the 808 public school parents. For more information on methodology, see page 25.

    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 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. As a private operating foundation, 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.

Back To Top