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Press Release · April 27, 2006

Special Survey On Education: Californians Rip State Of K-12 Education, But Won’t Put Their Money Where Their Angst Is

Alarming Pessimism in Black Community; Education Key Issue In ’06 Elections

SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 27, 2006 — Whether it’s high school drop-out rates or the quality of workforce preparation, Californians have a starkly negative view of their K-12 public education system, according to a survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) with funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Yet despite grave concerns – and a staunch belief that more funding would boost educational quality – residents are not willing to foot the bill for improving the state’s schools.

The share of Californians (58%) who say the quality of education is a big problem is higher now than at any time since 1998, when the PPIC Statewide Survey was launched. In fact, one-third (32%) believe the quality of education has worsened in just the past two years. Nearly every facet of school performance gets poor grades: 60 percent of Californians say schools are not doing a good job preparing students for the workforce, and 53 percent say they are not doing a good job preparing students for college. Astonishingly, 44 percent do not believe schools are doing a good job even in teaching basic reading, writing, and math skills.

“The public’s frustration with the state of education is palpable. They see lots of rhetoric but little progress,” says PPIC survey director Mark Baldassare. “There is serious discontent across the board.”

Given the high level of dissatisfaction, it’s not surprising that Californians believe their elected representatives are not doing a good job on education. Two-thirds of likely voters (65%) disapprove of the legislature’s handling of education issues – only 16 percent approve. Although Governor Schwarzenegger fares better, about half of likely voters (49%) disapprove of his handling of education and only 33 percent approve. And when it comes to making budget choices for K-12 education, a higher percentage of Californians prefers the approach of Democrats in the legislature (37%) to the approach of the governor (17%) or Republicans in the legislature (19%). Disillusionment with state government’s handling of education extends to fiscal decision-making. Only one in eight Californians (12%) say they trust state government the most to make spending decisions for local schools. Residents see a host of local authorities – their local school district (36%), teachers (30%), and principals (13%) – as more trustworthy.

Someone Else’s Money

So what will Californians do to improve their education system? Very little. Residents evidently want the state to do everything but are unwilling to pay for anything: Only 36 percent of likely voters favor raising the state sales tax and fewer than one-quarter (24%) favor raising property taxes to fund public schools. The story changes dramatically, however, when someone else is paying. Substantial majorities of residents (64%) and likely voters (60%) favor raising the income tax paid by the wealthiest Californians to fund education.

Unwillingness to dip into their own pockets is steadfast, even though large majorities of all Californians (65%) and likely voters (58%) believe additional state funding would lead to higher quality education. This attitude splits along party lines, with Democrats (75%) and independents (66%) much more likely than Republicans (44%) to hold this view. “A lack of trust in government makes people reluctant to pay higher taxes, even for things they wholeheartedly support,” says Baldassare. “They need to believe that their money will be used efficiently.” That judgment is borne out by the fact that overwhelming majorities of residents (81%) and likely voters (83%) believe better use of existing funds would improve education.

Qualms about Equity

The quality of education in lower-income areas is another cause of high concern for Californians, and support for policies to help schools in these communities is widespread. Eighty-six percent of residents are at least somewhat concerned about students in lower-income areas dropping out of high school, and most (71%) support addressing the problem by increasing the number of support staff in these schools – even if it costs the state more money. Most residents (78%) are also concerned that lower-income students are more likely to fail the high school exit exam. Most (72%) also favor providing those students who fail initially with additional resources such as smaller classes and fully credentialed teachers – even if it costs more. About half of Californians (49%) believe the state should give more funding to schools in lower-income areas, even if it means less funding for other schools. Asians (72%) support this idea far more than any other group (blacks 57%, Latinos 52%, whites 45%).

Perhaps the most troubling finding is the almost desperate concern about education among black Californians. Eighty-seven percent of blacks are very concerned about high school drop-out rates, a much higher percentage than in any other group (Latinos 59%, Asians 51%, whites 50%). Likewise, the percentage of blacks (75%) who are very concerned about low-income students failing the high school exit exam is substantially higher than the percentage of Latinos (54%), Asians (39%), or whites (38%).

“This chasm between blacks and other groups is shocking,” says Baldassare. “Concern among blacks has reached a crisis stage.” An overwhelming belief that lower-income schools lack high quality teachers is one probable cause for this pessimism: Eight in ten blacks (83%) are very concerned that there is a shortage of good teachers in low-income schools, compared to 57 percent of all Californians. Among all residents, teaching children with limited English (47%) and the high school drop-out rate (65%) are more likely than teacher quality (27%) to be seen as a big problem.

The Purpose of Education

Californians also fail to agree on the goal of K-12 education. Although preparing students for college (26%) tops the list, there is support for a host of other goals, including teaching students the basics such as reading and math (19%), teaching students life skills (17%), preparing students for the workforce (14%), and preparing students to be good citizens (14%).

In addition to the overall lack of consensus, there are strong differences of opinion between groups. For example, Latinos and Asians (20% each) are far more likely than whites (10%) or blacks (8%) to believe that public education’s primary goal is preparing students to be good citizens. Parents of public school children (33%) are more likely than Californians as a whole (26%) to say that college preparation is the most important goal. Californians also differ on what schools should emphasize: Younger residents (61%) are more likely than older Californians (35%) to believe schools should offer a wide variety of courses rather than concentrate on fewer basics.

There are, however, public policies that most everyone agrees on – in particular, statewide testing. Majorities of Californians (72%) and public school parents (73%) across all regions think students should have to pass a statewide reading and math test to be promoted to the next grade, even if they have passing grades in their classes. Similar numbers believe that students should have to pass a statewide test to graduate from high school (all residents 73%, public school parents 75%).

Education and the 2006 Election

Education issues are poised to factor heavily in the 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Nearly all likely voters say candidates’ positions on K-12 education are very important (60%) or somewhat important (32%). And the campaign is beginning to attract interest: Six in 10 likely voters say they are currently following the news about the governor’s race at least fairly closely – up from 52 percent in March. Democratic primary voters currently favor State Controller Steve Westly (26%) over State Treasurer Phil Angelides (20%) in the race to challenge incumbent Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger this November. Still, over half of these likely voters remain undecided or say they would vote for someone else.

Proposition 82 – which would fund voluntary preschool education for all four-year-olds in California through a tax on wealthy state residents – is currently supported by 51 percent of likely voters, with 40 percent opposed. Democrats (64%) are more likely than independents (50%) and Republicans (38%), and Latinos (63%) are more likely than whites (47%), to back the measure. Is access to preschool perceived as a problem in the state today? Seven in 10 likely voters express at least some concern that children in lower-income areas may not be able to attend preschool.

More Key Findings

  • Immigration a Top Concern — Page 1
    Californians (27%) now rank immigration as the most important issue for the governor and legislature to work on in the coming year, followed by education and schools (24%).
  • State Rankings — Page 6
    Many more state residents believe California ranks below the average or near the bottom in student test scores (46%) than in per pupil spending (31%).
  • Music To Their Ears… — Page 12
    A majority of Californians (58%) say art and music are an important part of the public school curriculum. Blacks (79%) overwhelmingly support these programs.
  • Paradox of Proximity — Page 13
    In contrast to their pessimistic view of education quality in the state, most Californians (55%) – and especially parents of public school children (64%) – give their own neighborhood schools marks of A’s or B’s, while far fewer give D’s or F’s (21%).

    About the Survey

    This survey on education in California – made possible by funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation – is a special edition of the PPIC Statewide Survey. This is the second survey in a series intended to raise public awareness, inform decisionmakers, and stimulate public discussion about education-related issues facing the state. Findings of this survey are based on a telephone survey of 2,501 California adult residents interviewed between April 4 and April 19, 2006. 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 the 1,137 likely voters it is +/- 3% and for the 496 Democratic primary voters it is +/- 4.5%. 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.

    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.