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Education Letter to the Editor

California’s ‘Educational Nightmare': Taking Stock

January 25, 2005 3 min read
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To the Editor:

Findings from the RAND Corp.’s 216-page report on California’s public schools, commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, should cause every one concerned with education in the state to pause and take stock (“New Report Details Not-So-Golden State of Calif. Education,” Jan. 12, 2005).

The state’s schools ranked 48th overall on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests of reading and mathematics (just ahead of Louisiana’s and Mississippi’s). “When students’ family backgrounds are controlled for,” the report noted, “California’s scores are the lowest in the nation.”

There is no single answer on the whys and wherefores of California’s rock-bottom educational rating, but consider that in the last 35 years, the state’s per-pupil funding has fallen from $400 above the national average to $600 below. California has the second-worst student-to-teacher ratio in the country: nearly five students per teacher greater than the national average.

In real purchasing-power dollars, adjusted for cost of living, 31 states pay their teachers more than California does. We are now 30th in per capita spending on education at the K-12 level. More than eight in 10 districts nationwide require that their teachers be fully certified, while in California less than half do.

Columnist Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee, commenting on the RAND report, reflected the pessimistic mood of many here in his blunt appraisal that the “crisis is likely to continue,” given the “perhaps unsolvable conflicts.”

Already, the finger-wagging has begun. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for austerity measures and increased teacher accountability; teachers’ unions have demanded that the governor live up to the funding promises he made last year. Gov. Schwarzenegger would like to introduce a merit-pay schedule and make it more difficult for teachers to receive tenure. Both proposals are opposed by the California Teachers Association.

The problem is that even if the governor is able to ram his programs through a recalcitrant legislature, or the teachers’ unions are able to forestall salary setbacks, the bigger picture will have been missed. In a country that ranks 24th out of 29 industrialized nations in both math literacy and problem-solving (this according to the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA), California students are at the bottom of an already rotting barrel. (“Poor Math Scores on World Stage Trouble U.S.” Jan. 5, 2005.)

Lack of money is certainly one reason our schools are failing. Particularly since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, school spending in real dollars has nosedived. Another problem is white flight.

Not only have savvy parents, particularly white parents, opted for private schools, but many of them have left California altogether. Despite the fact that the overall population grew by over 10 percent between 1990 and 2000, the white population decreased by over a million. In 1980, whites accounted for two-thirds of the state’s population; today, they make up about 46 percent.

Moreover, whites account for only about a third of the overall public school population. In 1987-88, the first year such records were kept, 50 percent of public school students in California were Caucasian. In cities such as San Francisco, the percentages of whites in public schools now hover around 10 percent. When parents privatize their children’s education, they have less incentive to support public education.

Another Damoclean sword hanging over California education is the real estate market, making housing all but unaffordable for new teachers. The national real estate broker Coldwell Banker, in its annual home-price-comparison index, found that seven of the nation’s 10 most expensive housing markets are located in the Golden State.

What is most discouraging, though, is that California once led the nation in education. In the 1950s and 1960s, California teachers were among the highest paid in the nation and were better educated than those in most of the nation. The state was consistently in the top 10 in per-pupil spending, and half of California’s high school graduates went on to college (compared with a third in the rest of the country). Public school classrooms were constructed at a rate of 20 a day to house the 200,000 new students entering schools every year.

California’s dream has turned into an educational nightmare. But if the plight of our education system is ever to be more than hand-wringing cocktail party fodder, Californians must resolve to re-enter, reinvest in, and reinvigorate the system quickly.

Patrick Mattimore

San Francisco, Calif.

The writer taught social studies at South San Francisco High School from 1992 to 2002.

A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as California’s ‘Educational Nightmare': Taking Stock

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