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Press Release · February 25, 2000

Public Schools Serving Poor Students Are Being Shortchanged In California, Study Finds

But Poverty, Not Lack of Resources, is Key Barrier to Student Achievement

San Francisco, California, February 25, 2000 – Public schools serving greater numbers of disadvantaged students receive fewer educational resources than schools with more affluent students, according to a new study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). However, the study also found that these inequities do little to explain the gulf in achievement between disadvantaged schools that perform poorly and advantaged schools that perform well.

The study, Equal Resources, Equal Outcomes? The Distribution of School Resources and Student Achievement in California, provides a detailed picture of how school and classroom resources – measured in terms of class size, curriculum, and teachers’ education, credentials, and experience – vary among schools. Using a database of 7,321 schools (98% of all public school children in California), the study found that while average class size varies little across California schools, there are profound differences in teacher preparation and in the number of college preparatory courses offered. These differences exist both geographically – with significant variations among rural, suburban, and urban schools – and within individual school districts.

Authors Julian Betts, Kim Rueben, and Anne Danenberg also found that schools serving the most disadvantaged students have fewer fully credentialed teachers, a greater number of teachers with little or no experience, fewer Advanced Placement classes, and fewer college-requirement courses than schools serving middle- and upper-middle income students. By dividing elementary schools across the state into five economic groups (based on the proportion of needy students participating in free or reduced-price lunch programs), the authors found, for example, that 22 percent of teachers in the most disadvantaged group of schools were not certified, compared to just 2 percent in the most affluent group.

These findings confirm what Californians already suspect. A recent PPIC Statewide Survey (February 2000) found that nearly eight in ten state residents believe that schools in lower-income areas of the state do not have the same amount of resources – including good teachers – as schools in wealthier areas. And 70 percent said they believed that school districts with the lowest student test scores in the state should receive more resources than other school districts.

“By many measures, we find startling inequities between schools serving the state’s poor students and those serving the affluent,” said economist Betts. “This raises tough questions about the effectiveness of the state’s decades-long effort to equalize resources, especially because much of the inequality we found occurs in schools within the same district. At the same time, we also find little evidence to suggest that additional resources will substantially improve student performance. Instead, our findings point to a much larger and more stubborn obstacle to the success of students at these disadvantaged and underperforming schools – their family’s economic well-being.”

Indeed, the strongest predictor of test scores in a school is not teacher quality or curriculum, but the percentage of economically disadvantaged students. This is true even when students with limited English proficiency (LEP) are excluded from the analysis. For example, the study looked at the achievement of non-LEP 5th grade students on the 1998 Stanford 9 Reading Test. The analysis suggested that if two schools were identical (in terms of the resources examined in the study) except for the socioeconomic status (SES) of the students, 30 percent more students in a high SES school would score above the national average on the reading test than would students in a low SES school.

Even more troubling for many of the current policy reforms aimed at improving teacher quality, the authors find that as long as a school has a high percentage of disadvantaged students, increasing the number of experienced, highly educated, and fully certified teachers would have only modest effects on test scores. Teacher certification and teacher experience appear to matter more for student achievement than do class size or teacher education. Yet in a school with predominantly low SES students, even if all teachers were to become fully credentialed, only an additional 3 percent of students would score at or above the national average.

The study’s findings point out that the poor performance of California schools is not a problem that can be solved by simply pouring money into the system in many of the ways now proposed. “Many current reform proposals, especially those aimed at improving teacher preparation in poor schools, are important first steps and are critical to achieving social equity,” said Betts. “However, the poor performance of disadvantaged children appears to result largely from much deeper problems in society. We clearly need to find more effective ways to spend education dollars.”

Responses to the education questions in the latest PPIC Statewide Survey underscore the difficulty of developing consensus about the broader factors associated with student success in California. Thirty-five percent of Californians say that the most important ingredient for student success is putting good teachers in the classroom. Twenty-three percent believe that what’s most important is class size, and 22 percent believe that the most important ingredient for student success is family background. Belief that teachers’ experience and education is the most important ingredient is even higher (40%) among people with children in public schools than it is among all Californians, while fewer of those with children in public schools believe that student family background is the biggest factor (19%).

Study Questions Assumptions, Results of School Finance Reform Efforts

Ironically, a second PPIC study reveals that today’s troubled school finance system reflects earlier efforts to direct more revenues to districts with disadvantaged families. In For Better or For Worse? School Finance Reform in California, authors Jon Sonstelie, Eric Brunner, and Kenneth Ardon maintain that these reforms – which began with a 1971 court order to equalize spending across districts – have failed to achieve most of their original goals and may have contributed instead to a decline in student performance over the last two decades.

The authors attribute much of this failure to two factors. First, they argue that school finance reformers wrongly assumed that disparities in per pupil spending across school districts were systematically related to race and income. In fact, the study found that while many low-income and minority families lived in low-spending school districts, just as many lived in high-spending ones. As a result, reducing revenue inequalities at the district level did not help disadvantaged students as a whole.

Second, the passage of Proposition 13, which shifted control of the property tax from school districts to the state, affected school finance reform in ways that could not have been foreseen by reformers and policymakers. By limiting property taxes, Prop. 13 eventually led to per pupil spending reductions. In the face of these reductions, school districts chose to hire fewer teachers, which resulted in a dramatic increase in the pupil-teacher ratio. By the 1980s, the state was allocating revenues more equitably than before, but it did so by “leveling down” high-spending districts rather than by raising low-spending ones. At the same time, student test scores in California began dropping relative to other states.

“Over the last 20 years, California has fundamentally altered the way it finances schools without changing the way it governs them,” said economist Sonstelie. “School boards continue to govern districts, but the state controls how funds are allocated. Until policymakers resolve this basic tension, California may have difficulty reversing the current pattern of low spending, large classes, and poor student performance compared to other states.” The authors outline two basic options for coordinating school governance and financing: shifting governance to the state level or devising a system of local finance that will satisfy the courts.

The Public Policy Institute of California is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to objective, 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. David W. Lyon is President and CEO of PPIC.