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Press Release · April 28, 2005

Special Survey on Education: Californians Give K-12 Public Education Poor Grades But Have Great Expectations For Their Kids

Governor Also Gets Low Marks, But Mixed Support for Proposed Ballot Measures

SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 28, 2005 — Years of self-proclaimed “education governors,” massive reforms, and increased spending have done little to assuage the public’s concern about the quality of public education, according to a new survey released by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This pessimism stands in sharp contrast to the soaring aspirations parents express for their own children’s educational attainment.

After seven years and three governors, the vast majority of Californians (82%) continue to believe the quality of education in California’s K through 12 public schools is at least somewhat of a problem. The number viewing K-12 quality as a big problem has actually grown, from 46 percent in 1998 to 52 percent today. Consistent with these feelings, residents are also less likely to perceive improvement in the quality of public schools. Today, just 19 percent say there has been progress along these lines, while 31 percent see a decline in educational quality. In 2001, 31 percent of state residents said K-12 quality was getting better and 22 percent said it was getting worse. One consequence of this negative assessment? Most Californians – including the parents of children who attend public schools – are more likely to say that private schools (60%) rather than public schools (24%) provide the best education.

“Concern about public education runs deep in California, and the perceived lack of progress, despite all the reform and rhetoric, only serves to heighten residents’ distrust of their government and disappointment in their elected officials,” says PPIC Statewide Survey Director Mark Baldassare.

Governor’s Ratings Slide, Support for His Education Proposals Mixed

Today, 40 percent of Californians approve and 50 percent disapprove of the way Governor Schwarzenegger is handling his job overall, a substantial change since January when a strong majority (60%) approved of his performance. Schwarzenegger’s approval ratings have also dropped below a majority among likely voters (45% approve, 47% disapprove). On education, the governor’s disapproval ratings (51%) remain unchanged since January. As with his overall ratings, there are sharp partisan differences: A majority of Democrats (69%) and 50 percent of independents disapprove, while 50 percent of Republicans approve of the governor’s handling of education.

But the news is not all bad for the governor: One of the education-related ballot measures he favors currently enjoys majority support. Over half of likely voters (55%) say they favor a measure which would increase the amount of time required for a public school teacher to get tenure and make it easier to dismiss low-performing faculty. However, only 44 percent of likely voters currently support a Schwarzenegger-backed initiative aimed at limiting state spending and changing school funding requirements.

Protect State Education Funding, But Don’t Raise My Taxes

By a wide margin, K-12 education ranks as a top state budget priority for Californians, with seven in 10 (72%) giving it a high priority in light of the state’s multibillion dollar budget gap. When Californians are asked which of the four major spending categories they most want to protect from budget cuts, K-12 public education receives the greatest support (54%), distantly followed by health and human services (22%), higher education (12%), and corrections (7%). Half of residents (51%) – and 59 percent of public school parents – say their local public schools do not receive enough state funding.

Despite their concerns about funding for education, residents are unwilling to consider raising taxes to provide additional dollars for schools – unless someone else is paying. While large majorities – including majorities of likely voters – oppose raising the state sales tax (70%) or extending it to include services (60%) for this purpose, they do favor raising the income tax for the wealthiest Californians (63%) and assessing commercial properties according to their current market value (54%). At the local level, majorities say they would support a bond measure to fund school construction projects (71%) but would oppose a measure to increase property taxes to provide revenue for schools (51%).

Why the unwillingness to ante up? Most residents (59%) believe the quality of the state’s public education system can be improved by wiser use of current resources, rather than additional funding. One driver of the distrust residents express about how current resources are allocated? They don’t like who’s calling the shots. At the state level, Californians say they prefer to see Democrats in the legislature (38%), rather than Governor Schwarzenegger (24%) or GOP legislators (15%), making the tough calls on education spending. However, when asked whom they trust the most to make spending decisions for schools, only 12 percent of residents name state government. Instead, two in three residents believe principals and teachers at local schools (37%) or local school districts (31%) should make decisions about school fiscal policies. Ultimately, Californians themselves want to be the decisionmakers: 66 percent of residents say voters, not the governor and legislature (21%), should decide at the ballot box about major, long-term changes in the K-12 system.

Widespread Openness to Education Reforms, Alternatives

When asked to specify the one thing that most needs improvement in California’s public schools, three suggestions top the list – class size (14%), curriculum (11%), and teacher quality (11%). There is consensus on the importance of these three areas – although the emphasis varies slightly – across age, education, income, racial and ethnic, political, and regional categories. Residents are also supportive of a number of current and proposed reforms:

  • Student Testing – 72 percent support the policy that, beginning in 2006, requires students to pass a statewide test before they graduate from high school. The same percentage also supports statewide testing before students are promoted to the next grade.
  • Merit Pay – 64 percent say it would be a good idea to increase teachers’ pay based on merit – such as how well their students perform on tests – instead of based on seniority or years of service.
  • School Choice – 61 percent support allowing students to enroll in any public school they choose.
  • Small Schools – 61 percent favor reorganizing high schools into smaller campuses with fewer students, even if it means increasing the cost per student.
  • Resource Equity – 64 percent say school districts in lower-income areas should receive more resources from the state than other school districts, reflecting the widespread awareness (76%) that schools in lower-income areas of the state have fewer resources than those in wealthier areas.

Parental Involvement in Education Varies, Parental Aspirations About Education Universal

In addition to agreement about the need for education reform, consensus exists about the importance of parental involvement and socioeconomic status. Eight in 10 Californians (78%) say parents who fail to pay attention to how their children are doing are a big problem in K-12 public education today, and a similar percentage think low parental income (79%) and children with limited English-language abilities (80%) are at least somewhat of a problem.

Despite the perceived importance of parental participation, many public school parents say they have not been involved in their local schools: 53 percent say they have participated in a fundraising activity for a local school in the past 12 months, while fewer than half say they have volunteered in a local school (48%) or belong to the PTA or a similar group (36%). There are big differences in participation across racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups, with white, higher-income, better-educated, and female parents more likely than Latino, lower-income, less-educated, and male parents to participate in these activities.

But many parents with children in K-12 public schools say they are actively involved in their child’s education in terms of homework and teacher meetings: 77 percent say they help out with homework two or more nights each week, and 67 percent say they have initiated teacher meetings two or more times since the start of the school year. When it comes to these activities, parents in lower socioeconomic groups are at least as involved as other parents. For example, Latino parents are more likely than white parents (59% to 44%) to say they help with homework four or five nights a week.

Engaged or not, parental hopes for their children’s education are stunning. Nine in 10 aspire to college graduation for their children, and 41 percent hope that their children will, in fact, earn a postgraduate degree. These expectations are high in all demographic groups, including those who did not attend college themselves (79%), those with incomes below $40,000 (81%), Latinos (82%), and immigrants (83%). However, the proportion of parents saying they have what is needed to achieve the goal they have in mind is lower (under 50%) among those with lower levels of education and income.

More Key Findings

  • Religious Schools Get Top Marks — Page 15
    Private religious schools (32%) are viewed as providing the best education in California today, followed by nonreligious private schools (28%), public schools (24%), and home schooling (8%). Conservatives (44%) favor parochial schools, while liberals (38%) prefer nonreligious private schools.
  • Residents Kinder to Their Local Schools — Pages 13
    Many Californians have issues with the state’s education system, but most are pleased with their local schools. Eight in 10 residents (78%) give their local schools passing grades.
  • Pessimism About State’s Direction, Economy — Page 21
    In a major turnabout since January on two key barometers of economic well-being and consumer confidence, more residents today say the state is headed in the wrong direction (53% today, 41% January) and say they expect bad economic times in the next 12 months (51% today, 39% January).

About the Survey

This survey on education – made possible by funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation – is a special edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey. This is the first in a three-year series intended to raise public awareness, inform decisionmakers, and stimulate public discussions about a variety of education, environment, and population issues facing California. Findings of this survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,502 California adult residents interviewed between April 4 and April 17, 2005. Interviews were conducted in English, Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, or Chinese. The sampling error for the total sample is +/- 2%. The sampling error for subgroups is larger. For more information on methodology, see page 19.

Mark Baldassare is research director at 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. His recent book, A California State of Mind: The Conflicted Voter in a Changing World, is available at

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.