Testing the California Education Hypocrisy Index
By Peter Schrag
The gloomy reports about California’s overstressed public schools keep piling up – two came on one another’s heels in the last week – but there may now be at least a glimmer of good news there as well: More people than ever before seem to be getting it, from the new governor on down.
Because of that getting-it, there may even be a chance for a little improvement.
The central message from last week’s reports, one from EdSource, the Palo Alto-based school data and analysis group, the other from CFTL, the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning in Santa Cruz, is that California is making ever more demands of schools and their employees and giving them ever less funding and support to do it.
That’s not news, except for the fact that it’s been getting progressively worse, by billions of dollars, and will get worse again next year. Even Jerry Brown had some of those ugly numbers in his summit earlier this month.
“California is above average in capacity,” as the EdSource report puts it, meaning that our per capita income is higher than the national average, “But below average in effort.” Relative to California’s cost of living, we’re 43rd among the states in our commitment to the K-12 schools.
So we pay teachers and other professionals more than the national average, but as reported again and again, our ratio of students to teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses and other staff is the highest or second highest in the country. The nation has an average of 15.5 students per teacher. California’s is nearly 21. At the moment, even the data systems that are urgently need to judge teacher performance and student progress are starved of funds.
And as EdSource points out, its dismal numbers are from 2007-8; they don’t include the cuts to school funding that have been coming since or those predicted for next year.
Meanwhile we have lots of blather from politicians, journalists, business leaders and foundations about high standards and the great importance of education. Read between the lines and the numbers, and you have the California hypocrisy index.
The student-staff ratios and the class size numbers are hardly magic indicators of quality; a great teacher in a class of 35 is probably preferable to two sub-par teachers in classes of 17 or 18. But does anyone claim that California has ever made such a choice?
In fact, in the late 1990s, when we had a little money, we chose precisely the reverse on the basis of no evidence, imposing a rigid formula to reduce primary grade class size ratio to a maximum of 20-1, regardless of what kind of students were in those classes and bringing in thousands of new, inexperienced teachers.
So how do we at least begin to get the schools out of the squeeze they’re in?
There are some large, bright budgetary targets and it’s a fair bet that Brown will go after some of them. In a rough order of probability:
*Extend the temporary tax increases – the boost in the vehicle license fee, the sales taxes and income taxes -- that were enacted in 2009 and will expire in 2011. Voters in 2009 rejected the equivalent of such an extension, but if the extension were earmarked for education, they might react differently. That’s not a good budgeting strategy, but it would be good for the schools.
*Restore fiscal authority to local districts, something that would simultaneously allow local voters to increase property taxes for schools and increase district responsibility in spending. It could also restore some interest and involvement from members of the business community and other local leaders in running for school board seats and/or in funding candidates, thereby reducing the power of the unions that now dominate many local elections.
*Reform the pension and retiree health benefit arrangements for all future employees by requiring greater employee contributions and reducing the scope of, and eligibility of family members for, coverage.
*Eliminate more categorical programs and state school mandates, like the 20-1 class size formula, except those required for assessment of school and student performance and those protecting vulnerable groups – ethnic and language minorities, the handicapped, the poor.
*Continue to reduce the seniority factor, both in pay scales and in such things as bumping rights in teaching assignments. Develop more effective means of judging teacher performance, combining student achievement data, and principal and peer evaluations. This is not easy, but even a crude approximation might be better than the formulas based almost entirely on seniority and often irrelevant graduate degrees and credits.
*Institute a split property tax roll under which large businesses are assessed on the actual value of their real estate, not on the basis of some long-past property transfer or the frozen valuations of the 1970s. If the gains from realistic assessments could be retained in the local community, and not, in effect, become the property of the state, a lot of Californians might leap at the chance.
Returning fiscal authority to local districts would require revisions in the revenue limits that the legislature imposed on local districts nearly 40 years ago in anticipation of a court decision requiring the state to equalize school funding between poor and affluent districts, and maybe in the decision itself. But it wouldn’t be impossible.
It’s a complicated story. As the EdSource report observes, and contrary to long-held beliefs (including things I’ve written), “California’s below-average effort on behalf of public education stems [not] from the reduction of property taxes that Proposition 13 began in 1978,” but with the state’s imposition of those revenue limits.
Because the existing system of primarily locally funded school districts of that time “resulted in wealth-based disparities in funding, the state, in its attempt to equalize funding across districts, “began providing greater increases to low-spending districts than to high spending districts.” Thereafter, “Proposition 13 drove local contributions down even further by reducing property taxes dramatically and limiting local communities’ ability to raise revenues for public services.”
The crucial element in this story is that all those problems, from the revenue limits and the associated court decisions to Proposition 13 and its progeny, are self-imposed; they weren’t brought by the stork or even by economic circumstances, and with some will and understanding of the damage they’re exacting from schools, kids, and from the future, they can be addressed.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America is now on sale. To reach Peter, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.