SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 25, 2007 — Is frustration with California’s faltering education system so profound that residents are simply disengaging from the vital issue? Although they continue to be deeply critical of the quality of K-12 education in the state, and of state leadership on the issue, the number of residents ranking education and schools as the most important issue facing California has fallen to its lowest point in three years, according to a survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) with funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
The number of Californians who say education is the most important issue facing the state has dropped to 9 percent – fewer than at any time since August 2004. A sign that state residents have seen progress on K-12 education? Far from it: Most Californians today (80%) still believe the quality of the state’s K-12 education is at least somewhat of a problem, with about half (52%) calling it a big problem. This number is virtually unchanged from January 2000, when 53 percent viewed K-12 education quality as a big problem. Moreover, nearly seven in 10 residents (69%) say the quality of education has gotten worse or stayed the same during the past two years, similar to 2000 when 73 percent held this view. And many Californians believe the K-12 system is in need of major changes (57%); 30 percent say it needs at least minor changes; only 9 percent say it is fine the way it is.
In the past decade, voters have faced education related measures on just about every ballot and have passed nearly $45 billion in school related bonds. Perhaps as a result of this spending, a majority of Californians (56%) today believe that the state ranks at or above the national average when it comes to spending per pupil (in reality California ranks 29 out of 50 states). In April 1998, only 42 percent of Californians believed that the state ranked at or above average in per pupil spending. Is a perception of greater investment changing views about education quality? Residents today (53%) are about as likely as they were in 1998 (49%) to say that test scores for California students rank below average or near the bottom compared to other states. “While education remains a critical issue for most Californians, they clearly see a lack of progress and appear to be questioning the return on all the investment and activity of recent years,” says PPIC President and CEO Mark Baldassare. “The Governor has declared 2008 the ‘Year of Education Reform’. The question is, does the public have the will – and the faith in state leaders – to tackle this complex and controversial issue?”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: RESIDENTS DING STATE LEADERS ON EDUCATION
State leaders have three steep challenges to overcome if they hope to rally support for additional education funding and reform: First, majorities of state residents are critical of the way the governor and state legislature are handling the issue. Second, residents clearly lack confidence in the state to allocate resources to schools. And third, residents are reluctant to increase spending on education without fiscal accountability.
An otherwise popular governor sees his approval rating plummet to 36 percent when it comes to his handling of education issues, while his overall approval stands at 53 percent. The same general pattern holds true for the state legislature: While 38 percent of California adults approve of the overall job the legislature is doing, just 29 percent approve of their handling of education issues. One ray of hope for them: Residents today are less likely than they were last year to disapprove of the performance of the governor (37% today, 51% in April 2006) and the state legislature (46% today, 55% in April 2006) on education issues.
Some of the critical views of state leaders on education issues may stem from the fact that Californians view the issue as one best handled at the local level, rather than in Sacramento where the power to allocate school resources actually resides. Most state residents (78%) would prefer to see local players – specifically teachers (34%) and local school districts (31%) – make decisions about how to allocate resources to improve student performance. Thirteen percent choose school principals. Only 14 percent say they prefer to see the state make those decisions. The clear preference for local authority and autonomy might explain why residents seem to feel more positive about their local schools than about the system as a whole. For example, although they are negative about K-12 education in California overall, a strong majority of state residents (80%) give their neighborhood schools passing grades of A (16%), B (36%), or C (28%). Public school parents are even more favorable than are residents generally: Sixty-one percent give their neighborhood schools a grade of A or B.
SPENT! VOTERS SAY NO TO MORE SPENDING WITHOUT REFORM
Still, with their overall confidence depleted, many Californians are no longer willing to ante up more dollars for the K-12 system. Surprisingly high numbers – 44 percent of all adults and 39 percent of public school parents – say their local schools have just enough, or more than enough, funding. While a majority of public school parents (57%) say local schools do not have enough funding, that margin fades among all Californians (48%). By comparison, 63 percent of Californians in August 2000 said their local public schools lacked adequate funding.
At this point, residents are unwilling (47% yes, 48% no) to increase property taxes to provide more funds for local schools. Although most Californians (66%) would support a bond measure to pay for local school construction projects, they are less likely than they were in December 1999 to support such a measure (66% today, 77% in 1999). At the state level, a majority of residents (64%) reject the notion of raising state sales taxes to provide additional funding for K-12 public schools. Is there a tax Californians will support? One that someone else will pay: More than two-thirds (68%) favor raising the state’s income tax rate on the wealthiest Californians to provide additional funding for K-12 education.
In general, Californians today are demanding accountability to go along with their spending. Slightly less than half (48%) say the state needs to spend more wisely and increase the amount it spends, while 37 percent think the state can improve educational quality by just making better use of existing funds. A mere 11 percent of Californians say increased funding alone is the answer. But if residents were assured that funds would be used efficiently, a full 75 percent say they would support increasing money for K-12 public education. Where would they want the additional education dollars to go? Majorities of Californians favor the following policies, even if they cost the state more money:
- Providing students who fail the high school exit exam with smaller classes and fully credentialed teachers until they pass the test (72%);
- Hiring more counselors and social workers in lower-income areas to help increase graduation rates (72%);
- Providing teachers who work in lower-income areas with additional training and professional development (76%), and attracting and retaining teachers in those areas by paying them higher salaries (67%);
- Developing a statewide database system to track school resources and student performance (66%);
- Providing more money for school facilities in lower-income areas than in other areas (79%).
PERCEPTIONS OF QUALITY, GOALS OF K-12 EDUCATION DIFFER BY RACE/ETHNICITY
While there is little ambivalence among all Californians about the poor quality of the state’s K-12 education system, the level of concern among racial and ethnic groups differs dramatically. For example, blacks (65%) and whites (61%) are far more likely than Latinos and Asians (36% each) to say the quality of education in the state is a big problem. But when it comes to K-12 quality, the pessimism of black residents stands out: 44 percent of blacks say the quality of education has worsened in the past two years compared to just 28 percent of whites, 21 percent of Latinos, and 20 percent of Asians.
Significantly more blacks are also “very concerned” about a slew of education related problems in lower-income areas. On the issue of high school drop-out rates, for example, concern is higher among blacks (77%) than among other groups (Latinos 54%, Asians 53%, whites 51%). When it comes to worrying about students in lower income areas failing the state’s High School Exit Exam, the differences are also stark (blacks 64%, Latinos 53%, Asians 39%, whites 37%). Moreover, three in four blacks (75%) – compared to 61 percent of Latinos, 49 percent of whites, and 46 percent of Asians – say they are very concerned that lower-income areas suffer from a shortage of good teachers.
Blacks (86%) are more likely than Latinos (79%), whites (75%), and Asians (56%) to say that lower-income areas should receive a larger share of resources – such as teachers and classroom materials – as a result of any new funding that might become available. This view is strongly supported by residents across the board (74%), by likely voters (70%), and by majorities in all major political parties (Democrats 79%, Independents 73%, Republicans 64%).
Striking racial and ethnic differences also emerge on the goal of K-12 education. Latinos (56%) are more likely than blacks (34%), Asians (28%), and whites (20%) to say preparing students for college is the most important goal. On the other hand, preparing students for the workforce is less important to Latinos (7%) than it is to whites (21%), blacks (20%), and Asians (16%). Nine in 10 Latinos (91%) and nearly as many blacks (89%) say it is very important that local schools prepare students for college, while fewer Asians (77%) and whites (76%) agree.
Despite their intense focus on college, more Latinos (74%) think it is very important to include career technical, or vocational, education as part of K-12 curriculum than do blacks (65%), whites (64%), or Asians (61%). Overall, more Californians say the premier goal of K-12 education should be preparing students for college (32%), followed by preparing students for the workforce (16%), teaching students life skills (16%), preparing students to be good citizens (15%), and teaching students the basics (13%).
MORE KEY FINDINGS
- Where to Begin? Little Consensus About Biggest Education Problem — Page 9
Californians have very different views about what aspect of K-12 public schools most needs improvement. Seventeen different topics were volunteered by at least 2 percent of survey respondents, the most common being teacher quality (11%), followed closely by class size and overcrowding (10%), teaching the basics (9%), discipline and values (8%), insufficient funding (6%), and safety and crime (5%).
- Drop-Out Rate A Bigger Problem than Teacher Quality — Page 12
Residents were asked to rate the seriousness of three issues affecting California’s K-12 education system: the high school drop-out rate, teaching children with limited English language skills, and teacher quality. While majorities say that each of these issues is at least somewhat of a problem, two in three (66%) call the drop-out rate a big problem, and half (50%) say teaching English learners is a big problem. Only 28 percent say the same about teacher quality.
- Extra Boost For English Learners — Page 20
A strong majority (73%) of residents favor providing English language learners with extra educational support, even if it means that they receive more assistance than other students.
ABOUT THE SURVEY
This edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey is the third in a series of surveys funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation focusing on education in California. This survey is intended to raise public awareness, inform decisionmakers, and stimulate public discussions about a variety of education issues facing the state. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,500 California adult residents interviewed between April 3 and April 17, 2007. Interviews were conducted in English, Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese), Vietnamese, and Korean. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for subgroups is larger. For more information on methodology, see page 29.
Mark Baldassare is the 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 improving public policy through objective, nonpartisan research on the economic, social, and political issues that affect Californians. 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.