If California is so blue, then why is it so solidly red when it comes to funding public education?
Californians voted two-to-one for Hillary Clinton, and voted to extend a state tax on the state’s wealthiest residents until 2030. After the election, our legislative leaders Anthony Redon and Kevin de Léon issued a joint statement bemoaning that, “Americans expressed their views on a pluralistic and democratic society that are clearly inconsistent with the values of the people of California,” and affirming that we, “won’t be dragged back into the past.”
I’m so proud to live in a state that bravely stands up and defends its citizens, no matter their religion, immigration status, or gender identity. However, as a parent of public school boys, an education advocate, and a transplant from New Jersey (ranked 2nd out of 50), I’m shocked that the legislative leadership year-after-year fails the 6-million children who attend California schools
While we invest heavily in healthcare and environmental protection, our schools —from the elementary to the university level—are constantly forced to do more with less. Hampered by the limitations of Proposition 13, California’s K - 12 system now ranks 46 out of 50 states in cost-adjusted per pupil spending, less than perennially red states like Indiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee.
In the same 2016 study that ranked New Jersey second in the nation, California was ranked the 9th worst public education system with below average reading and math scores, a high dropout rate, and worst-in-the-nation pupil-to-teacher ratio. Wisconsin—a state that went for Trump and has reelected union-buster Scott Walker three times—was ranked in the top five.
It’s true that California’s schools face a number of challenges, including a diverse student body with many nonnative English speakers, poverty, a teacher shortage, and the troubled legacy of No Child Left Behind. No single solution will solve every problem our students face, but lack of funding is the number one barrier keeping our school districts from improving.
As the New York Times reported recently, increased funding in schools districts can effect incredible changes, including improving academic outcomes, lowering dropout rates, and increasing students’ earnings as adults. One study cited in the article found that, “for poor children, a 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year of elementary and secondary school was associated with [student] wages [after graduation] that were nearly 10 percent higher, a drop in the incidence of adult poverty and roughly six additional months of schooling.”
This election, Californians showed they are willing and able to support tax increases - especially when the funds go to schools. Yet our state funding for public education remains woefully low and fluctuates wildly, hurting our already vulnerable students.
The Golden State is home to incredibly talented and committed academic researchers, educators, administrators, and advocates. The new local control funding formulas and local control accountability plans empower parents as never before, but California parents, unlike almost every other parent in blue states, have to constantly fundraise to cover basics like gym, art, or music, because the state falls short.
As we prepare to face off against Donald Trump and his nominee for U.S. education secretary, Betsy DeVos—a woman famous for defunding public schools—California’s legislative leadership must have the courage to untangle the Proposition 13 mess and the subsequent band-aid proposition fixes.
Let’s rise to our full measure as the heart of a morally sound progressive America and make our California schools a paradigm for what public education in this country can and should be.
Pat Reilly is a strategist and founder of PR & Company, a communications firm that works with changemakers in the public, private and philanthropic sectors.
The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.