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Improving Schools Is Top Priority for Californians, Poll Finds

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Californians place a higher priority on improving their public schools than on cutting taxes or fighting crime, a poll to be released this week shows.

Nearly half the Golden State residents who responded to the survey called for "a top-to-bottom overhaul" of the schools, while an additional 40 percent thought minor adjustments would fix the problems.

The findings echo national surveys that have found significant dissatisfaction with public education. They also provide a closer look at how people in the nation's most diverse and populous state, which faces a host of challenges in educating its young people, feel about their schools and efforts to improve them.

The telephone survey of a representative sample of 2,207 residents was part of a statewide research project aimed at probing Californians' attitudes about and expectations of public education.

The project was sponsored by the California Public Education Partnership, a coalition of 11 organizations founded to examine the public's attitudes and gather useful data for policymakers and educators.

The project also included eight focus groups with parents from across the state.

More than three-quarters of those surveyed believed that public education could improve over the next decade, but a majority of the focus-group participants were pessimistic about a turnaround.

Instead, they thought schools "will fall further behind academically, continue to waste money, and become more crowded, dangerous places," says the report, "Priority One: Schools That Work."

'Clear Direction'

Harvey Hunt, the executive director of the Santa Cruz-based Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, which coordinated the project, called the findings "cause for realistic optimism."

"The message here is not that things are rosy," Mr. Hunt said. "It's that finally we have enough information and some clear direction on which to build a public-engagement agenda to make our school-improvement and reform efforts more meaningful to the public."

The survey turned up more support for educating all children than researchers expected.

Eighty-five percent of the respondents agreed that the state should "provide a good public school education to all the children who now live in California."

When respondents were asked to compare education one-on-one with other pressing issues, improving schools came out on top:

  • 77 percent picked it over cutting taxes;
  • 77 percent chose it over improving environmental protection;
  • 51 percent ranked it above fighting crime.

The poll results have a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. It was conducted in February by Research/Strategy/Management and Belden & Russonello.

The research found that Californians would accept as progress both large and small school improvements, ranging from higher test scores and graduation rates to more enthusiastic children and clean, orderly buildings.

"Indeed," the report says, "the public would like to see simple improvements. People want to see that children have up-to-date books, that school buildings are maintained, and that restrooms are safe and clean."

Echoes National Findings

Many national surveys have shown that Americans believe public schools are doing a poor job teaching reading, writing, and mathematics.

The California research project reinforced those results, finding that people did not think academic standards were high enough.

While support for teaching the basics was very high, opinion was less firm on whether students should be taught to work in teams, a concept supported by 54 percent of the respondents.

Californians have little understanding about how their schools are financed, the survey found. But nearly eight in 10 thought the state should spend more on education.

That doesn't mean, the report cautions, that people are eager to pay higher taxes. Instead, the focus-group participants repeatedly called for money to be shifted to classrooms from the bureaucracy.

Copies of the research report are available for $30 from the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, 335 Shake Mill Road, Santa Cruz, Calif. 95060; (408) 427-3628. The report also is available on the Internet at

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