Education Funding

California’s Schooling Is ‘Broken’

By Linda Jacobson — March 19, 2007 8 min read
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California’s system of school finance and governance needs such a major overhaul that simply funneling more money into the existing formula or tinkering with the administrative structure probably wouldn’t help students reach state achievement goals, a massive research project commissioned by a bipartisan group of state leaders concludes.

Even though the package of studies—more than 1,200 pages in all— offers little in the way of cost estimates for improving student performance, the consensus is that the state first needs to give local schools more flexibility in their use of funding, get rid of barriers that make it hard to fire ineffective teachers, and improve data collection so officials can determine whether the money they are spending is making any difference.

Turbulent Decades

The studies document “how broken the system is,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said during a press conference held to discuss some of the findings in the nearly two dozen academic papers released last week. “This is just a starting point for what I hope will be a renewed focus in the legislature on increasing student achievement with needed reform,” he said.

Read “Getting Down to Facts,” posted by the Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice at Stanford University.

The project also is the latest chapter in a turbulent, nearly 30-year school finance story, which has seen California fall from its position as a leader in per-student spending in the 1970s to now spending well below the national average—a plunge that followed adoption of the Proposition 13 tax-limitation measure in 1978.

The researchers’ work will be used to draft policy recommendations, but with Gov. Schwarzenegger currently pushing a universal-health-care plan, it’s unlikely that any proposals to change the system will come before next year.

Whatever happens, the state is in for “a very political discussion,” said Mary Perry, the deputy director of EdSource, a Mountain View, Calif.-based policy-research organization. “My sense is that there is general consensus that the school finance system in California is ineffective. That may be where the agreement ends.”

Assessing Resources

The project, called “Getting Down to Facts,” was requested during the 2005-06 school year by the Republican governor’s Advisory Committee on Education Excellence, as well as by Democratic leaders, to reassess the state’s complex school finance system and determine whether more resources are needed for students to meet achievement goals.

Underwritten by four philanthropies—the Bill & Melinda Gates, William and Flora Hewlett, James Irvine, and Stuart foundations—the $3 million project mainly involved California researchers, but included some from as far away as Syracuse University in New York and the University of Pennsylvania.

Steps Toward Improvement

While cautioning against a “silver bullet” approach to changing California’s school governance and finance systems, a detailed series of academic reports urges the state to consider a number of steps toward what it calls “systemic reforms.”

• Improve decisionmaking at all levels by improving the alignment between the accountability system and decisionmaking responsibilities, including increasing flexibility at the local level.
• Improve information collection both at the state level, by following students over time and linking them with the resources they receive, and at the local level, where networks of teachers and administrators could learn from each other’s experiences.
• Refine policies to attract and retain high-quality teachers and administrators while also removing excessive barriers to dismissing chronically ineffective teachers.
• Simplify school finance formulas so that similar districts are treated similarly and differences across districts and are treated reasonably and consistently.
• Target resources to improve the outcomes of students living in poverty.
• Make the state budgeting process more predictable so that schools and districts can be more strategic in determining how best to use their resources for the next academic year.

SOURCE: “Getting Down to Facts”

Treated in advance with a secrecy usually accorded national-security matters, the 22 studies were released in two batches last week.

The studies on governance—which examine the current system—assert that financial resources, which are highly centralized at the state level, are distributed in such an irrational way that schools serving similar student populations in similar locations receive different funding. The researchers partially attribute what they see as a dysfunctional situation to overregulation and multiple funding streams that are designed to help improve instruction for low-performing students.

“Spending formulas are tied to arcane and complicated criteria established in the 1970s and are combined with a confusing mix of categorical programs that do not systematically address differences in needs across districts or allow districts and schools to spend resources in a way that help students achieve their goals,” a summary of the research states. “Our information systems are so inadequate, that even if we implemented reforms that were particularly effective, we might not realize it.”

Taken as a group, the studies suggest the need for systemwide changes. Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University education scholar and one of the researchers, said that state policymakers should resist the “instinct as a government to add one more widget. This says you can’t tinker around the edges anymore.”

Another theme is what researchers identified as weaknesses in the state’s teacher policies across a host of areas, including recruitment, pay scales, evaluation, and tenure.

But Barbara Kerr, the president of the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said a suggestion that the state lengthen the time before teachers earn tenure was a “nonstarter.” She referred to California voters’ rejection of a ballot proposal on that issue during a 2005 special election.

Ms. Kerr argued that discussing ways “to get the best teachers into the classroom” is more important than “saying some principals want to fire a teacher or two.”

Three studies focus on additional resources that might be needed to lift the performance of California students from the bottom of national rankings and meet the goal of reaching 800 on the state’s Academic Performance Index, a scale ranging from 200 to 1,000.

In one study, which relied on responses of administrators and educators on how they would spend money to improve achievement, Jon Sonstelie, a senior fellow at the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California, showed that even with a 40 percent increase in funding over the actual 2003-04 level—which would have put the state education budget that year at $60 billion—more than half the state’s schools still would not have met API.

“This suggests that new resources will need to be coupled with systematic reform and instructional innovation to help low-performing schools meeting high goals,” the researchers say in their summary. The current state budget for K-12 education is $55.1 billion.

Leaders of the project, however, quickly dismissed funding estimates of up to $1.5 trillion provided by researcher Jennifer Y. Imazeki, an associate professor of economics at San Diego State University, calling those estimates, based on a highly abstract econometric model, “weak and unreliable.”

State schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell cautioned against focusing at this point on projected cost figures for school improvement.

“The range of estimates researchers have given for what it will take to reach that magic word, ‘adequacy,’ is so broad it may cause some to throw up their hands and say, ‘impossible,’” he said in a statement. “I urge us not to do that. Let’s not yet argue over specific dollar figures, or use the most sensationally high-cost estimates to torpedo efforts at real reform.”

Suits and Initiatives

With the project—described by Mr. Kirst as “the biggest study of school finance and all its related policies in the history of the state”—California joins a host of other states, including Missouri, Ohio, and Oregon, in attempting to calculate the price of a good precollegiate education.

Flaws in the System

California is not making the most efficient use of its resources, according to those who studied the system.

• The current distribution of resources across schools and districts is complex and irrational.
• The highly prescriptive finance and governance systems thwart local schools and districts in their efforts to meet the needs of their students and promote higher achievement.
• Current teacher policies neither let state and local administrators make the best use of the pool of potential teachers nor adequately support current teachers.
• Policymakers, school administrators, and parents all lack the information they need to make informed decisions about education policies and practices.

Source: “Getting Down to Facts”

Supporters of what has become known as an adequacy approach—which often has been initiated by a legal challenge to a state’s existing funding formula, such as the lawsuit now being tried in Missouri—argue that more money will lead to better student performance. Opponents say there are less expensive ways to achieve that goal and that money should be used more effectively.

California actually was “a predecessor” in school finance litigation with a 1968 case, Serrano v. Priest, involving an East Los Angeles parent, said Ms. Perry of EdSource.

In that case, the California Supreme Court said that students in low-wealth property districts were being denied some of the same educational opportunities as those in wealthier areas. In response, legislation was enacted that was intended to equalize funding by directing larger increases for inflation to districts with lower revenues.

But before the state law went into effect, voters approved Proposition 13, which resulted in a substantial reduction in the amount of revenue available for cities, counties, and particularly school districts. Districts lost, in effect, half their property-tax revenue.

In 1988, voters concerned about that impact approved Proposition 98, a measure that set a minimum funding level for schools and community colleges. Still, Ms. Perry said, Proposition 98 kept the discussion focused on finance equity in terms of “the same amount for every child,” even as other states were “looking at education funding through a standards-based lens.”

In his study, Mr. Sonstelie of the Public Policy Institute of California said Proposition 98 established a “constitutional floor” for school funding in California, but he added that the state has rarely gone over the minimum amount the funding formula requires.

The current research project also followed on the heels of a 2004 legal settlement in the case of Williams v. California, which dealt with school facilities conditions and teaching materials. The settlement provides up to $800 million for repairs and ongoing monitoring.

Mr. Kirst said in an interview that he sees similarities between the findings of the latest California research project and the sweeping court decision that led to the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990. In a 1989 ruling, the Kentucky Supreme Court found the entire public education system as it then operated unconstitutional.

While Mr. Kirst writes in his study that California is trapped by Propositions 13 and 98, he adds that the state is in a different position from Kentucky and other states that have been involved in finance lawsuits because California is “not constrained by the court” or by a court’s definition of adequacy.

Even though the researchers in the project cautioned the public against settling on a particular dollar figure, Scott Plotkin, the executive director of the California School Boards Association, said it’s wrong to conclude that additional funding is not part of the answer. “It all has to be in the conversation,” he said.

Kris Vosburgh, the executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association—named for the sponsor of Proposition 13—said that “public education certainly needs some help, but from our perspective, it’s just one more parochial interest” like prisons or health care. “None of these groups,” he said, “ever come back and say, ‘We recognize that taxpayers are hit from all sides.’ ”

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence now will take the studies and use them to make policy recommendations. The others who requested the studies could also offer their own recommendations.

Allen Odden, a school finance expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that he doesn’t think the California studies provide instructions for how to make schools more effective, but that they do offer a “framework for where to go next.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as California’s Schooling Is ‘Broken’

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