On Saturday, April 16, parents, teachers, school administrators and others gathered at RAND to take part in its community forum on “The Future of California’s Public Schools.”
The news was not good.
The forum began with a presentation by RAND economist Stephen J. Carroll of a study he and other RAND researchers made, “California’s K-12 Public Schools: How Are They Doing?”
The study revealed that “lower student achievement might very well be an aftershock” of inadequate state funding of public schools.
According to the study “As recently as the 1970s, California’s public schools were reputed to be excellent. Today, that reputation no longer stands.” Between 1990 and 2003, the state’s 4th and 8th grade students performed below every state except Louisiana and Mississippi on national achievement tests in reading and mathematics. The decline “was evident among students of all races and ethnicities relative to students in other states with similar family characteristics.”
When sources of public revenue in California shifted from local school districts to the state beginning in 1978, following passage of Prop 13, “per pupil expenditures on instruction began to dip below the national average from more than $600 above the national average in 1978 to more than $600 below in 2000.”
Carroll reported that, beginning in the 1970s, Californians “consistently allocated a smaller share of our personal income for K-12 education than the United States as a whole. California citizens have chosen to make corrections, police and fire protection, health and hospitals and public welfare higher priorities than education.”
One consequence of reduced state funding was that “student-teacher ratios rose much higher than the national average with nearly 40 percent more students per teacher in California classrooms than in U.S. classrooms in the mid-1990s.”
In 1996, the California Legislature passed the class size reduction initiative to improve the K-3 students teacher ratio by mandating a 20 to 1 ratio. This helped at schools with lower percentages of minority and low-income students. But the demand for more teachers caused a decline in overall teacher quality, “while the quality gap increased between low-income and high-income schools.”
The sole positive note sounded by Carroll was that “throughout the 1990s the state lagged the nation in financing school facility needs but California voters are approving more and more state and local bonds for school construction.”
For all these reasons, Carroll gave California’s public schools a C- in financing, D for its teacher force, a D+ for facilities, an F in student academic attainment and a D in student educational attainment.
Also on the forum panel was California State Assembly member Jackie Goldberg, current Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, a member of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget and a former teacher. She said, “When you’re worse than the national average and you’re the 5th or 6th largest economy in the world I think it’s appalling. Corporations are leaving our state because our schools aren’t good anymore. We’re losing more than half our teachers before five years are over because there’s no more creativity in teaching. If you want better teachers, you need better working conditions. The biggest difference between low income, medium income and high-income kids when they enter school is language they hear. It’s the number of words they know the meaning of from personal experience. That’s the gap we never catch up.”
She then predicted that “it’s unlikely the state education pot is going to grow any larger without pressure from the public and I mean massive pressure from the public. Education is one of the few areas that’s non-partisan. The problem is you need to spend more on the neediest students.”
She went on to encourage the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District to “lead the way” to reforming California’s K-12 education system.
Another panelist, State Senator Sheila Kuehl, a Santa Monica resident, urged the community to press its legislators to authorize more school funding, stressing “it’s all about clamor and there needs to be more and more clamor. I want the Governor to be inundated.”
Kuehl also said that “schools need more flexibility at the local level to use resources to meet the standards in a way most appropriate to their school …but you need oversight of where the money goes.”
Another panelist, John Deasy, Superintendent of the SMMUSD, noted that when he took his job here, he was struck by “how tolerant and complacent” people here were “of the condition” of the schools. He described the situation as “dire,” adding that the full effect would be felt in 10 or 15 years ”when these students are in the state workforce after receiving a third-rate education.” He, too, felt a greater state investment was needed but “an informed targeted investment with accountability.” He also agreed with Goldberg that “those in greatest need should get the greater share of any new investment.”Other participants included ACLU lawyer Catherine Lhamon who was the lead attorney in a statewide class-action suit to “ensure all schools have access to educational essentials,” and two Los Angeles Unified School District middle school principals.