California Schools: What We Don't Know Might Hurt Us

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School children dragon parade

Flickr: Michael McCauslin

Here's a startling tidbit, buried in a new statewide poll on attitudes about schools and school funding: Two out of three of us are clueless about where California ranks in per-pupil spending compared to other states.

California's K-12 spending is: 
- Near the top or above average: 25%
- Average: 25%
- Near the bottom or below average: 36%
- Don't know: 11%

California ranked 42nd among 50 states and the District of Columbia in per-pupil spending last year, according to the National Education Association.

Here's another one: Half of us don't know how California ranks in K-12 student test scores compared to other states.

California public school student test scores ranked:
- Near the top or above average: 11%
- Average: 33%
- Near the bottom or below average: 49%
- Don't know: 8%

California ranked near the bottom in both math and reading scores in fourth and eighth grades, according to 2009 test scores compiled by the U.S. Department of Education.

Those nuggets come from a new statewide survey released last night by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The poll shows that the vast majority of Californians are very concerned that the state's budget deficit will lead to serious cuts to education. And most want to protect schools from those cuts.

In fact, a majority of Californians think that the current level of state funding for their local public schools is inadequate. When it comes to parents, three out of four public school parents say their child's school has already been affected by state budget cuts.

BUT... Californians don't seem to want to tax themselves more to fund schools better, according to the Public Policy Institute's poll. Just 36 percent of likely voters would raise the state sales tax to maintain current K-12 funding. Only 31 percent of likely voters would raise the personal income tax to do so.

Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal for a special election gets the backing of 56 percent of likely voters. But what the guv wants to put on the ballot is an increase in sales and income taxes to avoid cuts to education. Actually, what he wants is a five-year extension of temporary tax increases that were enacted in 2009... taxes we've already been paying. He wouldn't raise taxes beyond that, but by the time anyone might get to vote on such a measure, those current temporary taxes will have expired and so they will technically be tax "increases," rather than tax "extensions." And semantics appear to matter to voters.

One proposal that we do appear to favor: tax the rich! According to the poll, 68 percent of Californians (62 percent of likely voters) would support an increase to the top rate of state income tax paid by the wealthiest Californians. 

The California Teachers Association recently floated such an idea:  Raising the top 9.55 percent tax rate by 1 percent on personal income over $500,000 could bring in an estimated $2.5 billion a year.

In raw numbers, that may not be enough. California schools have lost 10 percent of their funding over the past three years and stand to lose billions more if lawmakers have to close the remaining $14 billion budget gap with cuts alone.

It's clear from the latest poll that Californians care about quality schools. But it's also clear that we need a better grasp of the facts.

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Comments (2)

  1. CarolineSF says:

    There’s a lot more about education that the public and the press need to have a better grasp of. For example, do most people know how poor the record is for the private sector running public schools? Do most journalists (especially editorial boards)?

    • Tyche Hendricks says:

      Hey Caroline,

      Indeed: governing education is a big part of Governing California. Thanks for reading and taking the time to reply.