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Press Release · April 30, 2008

School Quality, State Leaders Get Bad Grades as Budget Showdown Looms

Californians Want Schools Spared From Cuts But Resist Higher Taxes

SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 30, 2008 — Californians rank jobs and the economy as their biggest worry, but they also see the quality of the public school system as a significant problem. A majority of residents believe that the state’s schools need major changes, according to the fourth annual survey on K-12 education released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

But while Californians identify K-12 education as the area they most want spared from budget cuts, they are divided in their willingness to pay more taxes to maintain current school funding. As a showdown looms over the state budget, Californians’ negative views of the public school system and lack of consensus on how to pay for it coincide with a sharp decline in their confidence that their elected officials can handle the challenges ahead.

“There’s incredible concern about the budget crisis and its impact on schools,” says PPIC president and CEO Mark Baldassare. “People are uneasy with the way we make decisions about education, but they haven’t changed their views on how involved they should be in paying for it. That leaves the key question unanswered: How do we improve the quality of public schools?”


Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger dubbed 2008 the “Year of Education.” But that was before a national economic slump and a deteriorating state fiscal outlook prompted him to propose across-the-board spending cuts to balance the state budget. The state’s residents feel the shift in the state’s fortunes acutely, with 36 percent calling jobs and the economy the most important issue facing Californians, more than double the proportion (15%) who saw this as the No. 1 issue a year ago.

Education and schools rank as the second most important issue (12%), slightly higher than last year (9%) but far lower than April 2006 (24%). Immigration ranks third (11%) and gasoline prices fourth (10%).

More than half (53%) of the state’s residents say the quality of K-12 public schools is a major problem, and nearly a third (31%) consider it somewhat of a problem. The responses were similar last year, when 52 percent characterized school quality as a big problem and 28 percent said it was somewhat of a problem. Among parents with children in public schools, 43 percent this year regard educational quality as a big problem, a finding identical to last year’s.

Among all Californians, 59 percent say the school system needs major changes. This is a view shared across party lines, by 67 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Republicans, and 52 percent of independents.

But when it comes to their own local schools rather than the system as a whole, Californians give higher grades. More than half (54%) give their public schools an A (18%) or B (36%). Public school parents are even more positive, with 27 percent giving their schools an A and 40 percent giving them a B.


At a time when the governor and the legislature need to reach an agreement to resolve the state budget crisis, Californians’ confidence in the state’s leaders has declined, particularly in the area of K-12 education. Four in 10 Californians (41%) approve of Schwarzenegger’s overall job performance, down 3 points since last month (44% approval) and a steep 16 points since December (57% approval). Just 25 percent approve of his handling of K-12 education, down 11 points since last April and the lowest point since we began asking this question in January 2005, when the governor’s approval rating in this area stood at 34%.

The legislature fares worse in Californians’ estimation. Just one in four Californians (26%) approve of the way lawmakers are doing their jobs overall, down 4 points since last month (30% approval) and 15 points since December (41% approval). Only 21 percent of Californians approve of the way the legislature is handling public schools, down 8 points from last April (29%).


A strong majority (60%) of Californians choose K-12 public education as the area they would like to protect from budget cuts, ahead of health and human services (18%), higher education (11%), and prisons and corrections (8%). This view holds true across political party lines, regions of the state, and among all racial and ethnic groups.

Where Californians are split is in their willingness to pay higher taxes to avoid proposed cuts in public school funding. Among all residents, 49 percent say they are willing to pay more, and 48 percent are not. Democrats (60%) are much more likely than independents (48%) or Republicans (33%) to agree to higher taxes. The divide is regional as well. A majority of San Francisco Bay Area residents (57%) are willing to pay more, but many in the Central Valley (52%) and Inland Empire (51%) are not.

“There is consensus on the problem and the need for resources,” Baldassare says. “But there’s no commitment to action.”

Support for specific tax proposals also varies, depending on who would be most affected. An increase in the top rate of income tax for the wealthiest state residents gets strong support, with 67 percent in favor. But a sales tax increase that would be felt by all residents draws strong opposition, with 63 percent against such a tax.

Californians also expect money to be spent more wisely on schools. While a majority (63%) believe that more money would lead to better schools, only 8 percent feel that money alone will improve education. A large majority (85%) say educational quality would improve if the state simply made better use of the money it spends on schools now.

Considering Californians’ negative views of state decisionmakers and positive views of their own public schools, it is no surprise that residents would prefer that spending decisions be made at the local level: 46 percent say local school districts should decide how state money is spent, and 34 percent say teachers and principals should. Just 15 percent say the state government should have most of the control.

But residents’ willingness to spend more money on their local schools is limited. Most (65%) would support a hypothetical bond measure to pay for a local school construction project if their district put it on the ballot, a type of measure that requires a 55 percent “yes” vote to pass. But asked if they would support a hypothetical proposal to raise property taxes to boost school funding, only 48 percent said yes — far short of the two-thirds majority required to pass a tax increase.


While there’s overall agreement that the public school system needs major changes, racial and ethnic groups differ strongly in their perceptions of school quality and their beliefs about the goals of K-12 education. Blacks (72%) and whites (60%) are much more likely than Latinos (42%) and Asians (38%) to say that educational quality is a big problem.

Perceptions of the key problems in education vary across racial and ethnic groups, as well. Californians were asked to assess the relative importance of three education issues: the high school dropout rate, teacher quality, and teaching children with limited English language skills. Overall, seven in 10 (69%) say the dropout rate is a big problem, followed by teaching children with limited English skills (46%) and teacher quality (28%). But there are striking differences among groups.

  • Latinos (84%) and blacks (80%) are much more likely than whites (61%) and Asians (51%) to view the dropout rate as a serious problem.
  • More than half of blacks (53%) and whites (52%) say that teaching English learners is a big problem, while far fewer Latinos (41%) and Asians (32%) agree.
  • Blacks (47%) are far more likely than Asians (30%), whites (27%), and Latinos (26%) to see teacher quality as a big problem.

What’s the most important goal of the public school system? It depends who you ask. College preparation is the top choice (35%) among adults overall, followed by preparation for the workforce (17%), and teaching the basics (15%) and teaching life skills (15%). But the results vary widely across demographic groups, with 61 percent of Latinos placing college preparation first, compared to 31 percent of Asians, 30 percent of blacks, and 21 percent of whites. Whites (22%) were as likely to list workforce preparation as the top goal.


Since 2006, high school students have had to pass the California High School Exit Exam to graduate, and most adults support this requirement. The high level of support for the exit exam this year (72%) has been consistent since the first time PPIC asked the question, in 2002. But that support is coupled with rising concern about the higher failure rates of students in lower-income areas.

The exit exam, which includes math and English language arts, is first given to students in grade 10. Students who fail either or both portions have five more chances to take the exam. In each of the first two years that the test has been required, over 90 percent of high school seniors passed. But differences among racial and ethnic groups persist, and economically disadvantaged students are less likely to pass the exam than their wealthier counterparts.

More than eight in 10 Californians are very concerned (50%) or somewhat concerned (34%) about the differences in failure rates, higher than a year ago (44% and 35%, respectively). Blacks (77%) and Latinos (60%) are especially likely to say they are very concerned.

One proposal to address the problem is to provide students who fail the exam with smaller English and math classes taught by fully credentialed teachers. Two-thirds of adults (66%) say they support the idea even if it costs the state more money. But that support has declined by 6 points (72%) since last year. While Democrats (73%) and independents (63%) favor it, Republicans are evenly split (49% in favor, 48% opposed).


  • Most Californians think schools in low-income areas have fewer resources – Page 18
    Nearly eight in 10 Californians (78%) say schools in low-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 majority would spend more of it on low-income schools (72%) and schools with many English language learners or students with disabilities (63%) than on other schools.
  • Residents value data on student and school performance – Page 25
    Nearly nine in 10 residents (88%) say tracking performance is somewhat or very important, similar to last year’s findings (90%). But support for this goal has slipped among parents (from 65% to 58%). While a solid majority of adults favor spending more money on a better data system, support has fallen in this area as well, from 66 percent to 59 percent in favor.
  • Most say art and music are important – Page 24
    Strong majorities of Californians across political and demographic groups say the arts are very important (60%) or somewhat important (28%) in the school curriculum, which is in line with last year’s findings. Blacks (68%) are more likely than whites (64%), Latinos (58%), or Asians (50%) to say that art and music are very important.


This edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey is part of a series supported by funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The intent of this series is 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. To account for the growing use of cell phones, this PPIC Statewide Survey for the first time incorporates interviews on cell phones along with those on landline phones. Interviews took place between April 8 and April 22, 2008. They were conducted in English, Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese), Vietnamese, and Korean. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2% and for the 1,406 likely voters is +/- 3%. For more information on methodology, see page 29.


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 is now in its 10th year and has generated a database of responses from more than 180,000 Californians.

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.