New Report Details Not-So-Golden State of Calif. Education

By Joetta L. Sack — January 11, 2005 5 min read
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California’s education system is lagging on nearly every measurable standard of quality, from funding to teachers to student achievement, contends a report issued last week by a prominent think tank.

Written by researchers at the RAND Corp., the comprehensive, 258-page study offers a sobering analysis of the decline of a state education system that 30 years ago was widely regarded as one of the best in the country.

“California’s K-12 Public Schools: How Are They Doing?” is available online from RAND.

Faced with overwhelming fiscal troubles in recent years and laws requiring most education funding to come from state coffers, California leaders have struggled to support education at the minimum levels mandated by the state constitution. Now, some observers believe that the situation could provoke a school finance lawsuit in the coming months.

But the problems go well beyond funding, the RAND researchers say.

Lead researcher Stephen Carroll said the report by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based organization is the first time researchers have conducted such a broad-based study of California education, weaving together prior studies that focused on specific programs and policies.

“The surprising thing was not any one particular finding, but the fact that the findings were problematic in virtually every aspect of the system,” Mr. Carroll said in an interview last week.

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Evidence did point to a few bright spots: Scores on the state’s mathematics assessments have risen in recent years, and voters have approved major bonds for school construction and repairs.

The report, “California’s K-12 Schools: How are They Doing?” does not make specific recommendations to state leaders. Instead, it urges them to take a wide-ranging look at the education system when approaching issues, rather than creating piecemeal programs to solve specific problems.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based philanthropy that has financed a range of projects to improve California education, paid for the report. The study shows that the state needs long-term solutions and “serious school finance reform,” argued Marshall S. Smith, the director of the foundation’s educational programs and a former acting deputy U.S. secretary of education under President Clinton.

Among the points highlighted in the study:

• California’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress ranked 48th when the researchers averaged all NAEP scores from 1990 to 2003, trailed only by Mississippi and Louisiana. Even when accounting for the state’s large percentages of minority students and English-language learners, California’s averaged NAEP scores ranked last among the 50 states.

• The majority of the averaged NAEP test scores for white students in middle-class and more affluent areas were also lower than those of their peers in other states.

• California has the second-highest ratio of students per teacher in the nation, even though the state launched a major class-size-reduction program in 1996 for grades K-3 and for 9th grade English and mathematics. The state’s average pupil-teacher ratio for grades K-12 in 1999-2000 was 20.9-to-1, compared with 16.1-to-1 nationally.

• Schools in the state’s inner cities and other impoverished areas are more likely to have inadequate facilities and less qualified teachers than those in more affluent areas.

• Adjusted for inflation, California teachers’ salaries have not increased since the 1969-70 school year. The cost-of-living-adjusted annual salary for the 2000-01 school year averaged about $39,000, which placed the state 32nd nationally.

The report also addresses issues such as youth violence, consumption of alcohol and tobacco, and teenage parenthood. The results were largely unfavorable in those areas as well. It found, for instance, that California averaged 95 pregnancies for each 1,000 females between ages 15 and 17 in research conducted from 1985 to 1996; only the District of Columbia had a higher rate in the United States. California’s teen-pregnancy rate, however, is falling faster than in all other states, according to 2001 data.

‘The Ballgame’

Independent experts and state leaders, meanwhile, did not appear surprised at the report’s findings.

“California has a lot of high standards and tests, but it has never reformed the underneath finance system,” said Michael W. Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University and a co- director at Policy Analysis for California Education, a nonpartisan research group based at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley.

Given the state’s still-lagging economic situation and tight education budgets, Mr. Kirst, a former president of the state board of education, predicted that the report could fuel a push for a school finance lawsuit.

“California is not going to get anywhere through [voter] initiatives, and politics will produce nothing but incrementalism at best,” he said, “so I think a lot of people are pinning their hopes on that we’re finally going to get around to an adequacy lawsuit if we’re really going to meet adequacy standards.”

Because of laws that severely restrict local districts’ abilities to collect property taxes, districts rely on the state for the bulk of their funding.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell used the opportunity to call on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, to appoint members to the state’s Quality Education Commission.

The commission was established by legislation in 2002 to study and recommend a school finance model based on how much it should cost for each student to meet the state’s academic standards, a concept known to experts as adequacy.

Mr. Smith of the Hewlett Foundation said that the lack of action on appointing a commission could further provoke a finance lawsuit. “By not convening a Quality Education Commission, the governor is taking himself out of the ballgame, and leaves [the state] much more vulnerable to a lawsuit,” Mr. Smith said.

By the end of the week, however, it appeared as though the whole debate about the Quality Education Commission had become moot. In his Jan. 5 State of the State Address, Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed large-scale reforms to the state’s governmental structure, and said the cost of programs should not exceed state revenues. He also called for abolishing more than 100 boards and commissions.

In a conference call with reporters the next day, California Secretary of Education Richard J. Riordan said that the Quality Education Commission would be one of the panels abolished, and it would be replaced with a “Governor’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence.”

The new panel will be chaired by Theodore R. Mitchell, the president of Occidental College in Los Angeles, and will look at other educational goals beyond funding, Mr. Riordan said.

Late last week, in response to the plan to abolish the Quality Education Commission, Mr. O’Connell’s spokeswoman said that he is concerned that the new panel will not substantively address the issue of financial adequacy. “We owe it to California students to have an honest and thorough conversation about the adequacy of funding in our schools,” said Hilary McLean.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as New Report Details Not-So-Golden State of Calif. Education

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