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Press Release · October 29, 2003

Reality Check: Expectations For California Students Outstrip Resources

State Sets Tougher Academic Standards Than Rest of Nation, But Gives Schools Significantly Fewer Resources

SAN FRANCISCO, California, October 29, 2003— California schools face a strange paradox: State standards for academic performance are some of the most rigorous in the nation, yet schools here lack many of the resources available to students in the rest of the country, according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). The state sets ambitious curriculum standards for what students should learn in each grade, expects strong performance on standardized tests, and ranks individual schools using the stringent Academic Performance Index (API). But California schools spend less per pupil and have considerably fewer teachers per pupil than schools in other states.

The differences between California and the nation are striking on both dimensions. For example, California has 25 percent fewer teachers per pupil and spends approximately 9 percent less per student than schools in the rest of the United States. Yet, to meet the state’s performance goals under the API system, approximately 70 percent of students at every school would have to exceed the national median on the Stanford 9 achievement test. “These are exceptionally high standards by any measure,” says PPIC research fellow Heather Rose, who co-authored the study, High Expectations, Modest Means: The Challenge Facing California’s Public Schools. “California expects students to do much better than students in other states, but with fewer means.”

Not surprisingly, these lofty expectations stand in sharp contrast to actual performance, with few schools achieving state goals. In 2002, only 20 percent of elementary schools, 13 percent of middle schools, and 4 percent of high schools met or exceeded California’s standards.

California’s relatively modest school resources have less to do with low state spending generally than with a lower percentage of spending on K-12 education, higher cost of living, and larger population of school age children, according to the study. In 1999-2000, 22 percent of total government spending in California went to public schools compared to 25 percent in the rest of the nation. At the same time, there were 8 percent more pupils per capita in California than in the rest of the country. Additionally, in 2000, teachers here earned salaries that were 16 percent higher on average than teachers in the rest of the country, making hiring more expensive.

The report also raises important questions about the effectiveness of California’s system of school finance, where the amount of money provided to schools is based on previous funding levels rather than on independent needs assessments. “The way we finance schools operates on an automatic pilot mentality — doing what was done before — instead of addressing what schools really need or taking into account what specific resources really cost,” says Rose. The study also suggests that some state initiatives and propositions have restricted the way in which schools can spend money, potentially diminishing the effectiveness of the funds they do receive. Rose co-authored the study with PPIC senior fellow Jon Sonstelie, PPIC education specialist Ray Reinhard, and PPIC research associate Sharmaine Heng. The report is the first in a three-volume series made possible by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to 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.