Study Offers Grim Look at Schools
L.A. Times
Jan. 4, 2005

The state trails national averages in almost every objective category, the Rand Corp. report says. Its lead author urges systemic solutions.
By Duke Helfand,
In nearly every objective measure of school quality — including funding and academic achievement — California trails national averages, a finding that paints a grim portrait of the state's once-sterling educational system, according to a Rand Corp. study released Monday.

The researchers found that declining per-pupil funding, growing enrollments, relatively flat teacher salaries and large classes have undercut the state's efforts to improve public education.
  Even a reform that was meant to boost achievement —reducing the size of classes in kindergarten through third grade — spawned an unintended consequence of bringing legions of inexperienced teachers to schools, particularly those serving low-income and minority children.

The report did not offer recommendations to address the problems. But its lead author said the state should consider systemic solutions rather than piecemeal remedies — an approach that would require huge sums of money as Sacramento grapples with a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall.

"The system as a whole has problems," said Stephen Carroll, a Rand senior economist who warned against inaction.

"The economy in the future is going to depend on the quality of the workforce," he said. "We're not developing a workforce that is going to be competitive with other states."

The Rand report underscored that concern, saying that: •  California's fourth- and eighth-graders since 1990 have consistently scored lower on reading and math tests than most of their peers across the country, including those in Texas, New York and Illinois; during this time, the average reading and math scores ranked California above only Mississippi and Louisiana.

•  Teachers without full credentials accounted for about 15% of California's 287,000 teachers in the 1999-2000 school year. These inexperienced teachers were disproportionately concentrated in schools serving low-income and minority students.

•  Teacher pay falls below the national average when salaries are adjusted for the high cost of living in California. The outlook appears more positive when teacher pay is viewed in raw dollars: In the 1999-2000 school year, teachers with a bachelor's degree but no experience earned nearly $30,000 on average; those at the top of the salary schedule earned on average more than $56,000. Those figures put the state in the top 10, but they fell short when cost-of-living adjustments were factored in.

•  California spends less per pupil on school construction than the nation and such other large industrial states as Texas and Florida. Still, it has made progress over the last decade in building and repairing schools; voters approved more than $11 billion in state school construction bonds in 2002 and nearly $10 billion more in local bonds.

•  Though California schools began reducing class sizes in kindergarten through third grade in 1997, the state still had the second highest overall student-teacher ratio in the nation in the 1999-2000 school year; California's classrooms had nearly 21 students per teacher, compared to 16 per teacher nationally.

California's education leaders acknowledged the problems cited by the Rand report, saying the state has shortchanged students.

"It is clear that without additional investment in quality instruction and student support, we cannot expect to restore California to its status among the top-achieving states," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. "Nor can we expect to close the achievement gap that leaves low-income students, Latino and African American students lagging behind their peers."

O'Connell and the head of the state Assembly's Education Committee said that California's school finance system should be overhauled so that more money reaches the neediest students.

"The report says that we have abandoned a high-quality education system as a goal," said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), who also called for raising the minimum wage and expanded healthcare coverage for poor families, which she said would help keep students in school.

"Education is not either a Democratic or Republican issue," Goldberg said. "It's an issue of whether we want to make a commitment to the kids of the state." California is home to more than 6 million public school students — or nearly 13% of the nation's school-age children. A growing portion of these students come from low-income families or are immigrants who are still learning English.

To improve its schools, California has adopted tough academic standards in recent years, and schools now gear classroom instruction and teacher training toward these standards.

The state also has spent more than $50 billion annually on education, according to the Rand report — accounting for the biggest single expense in the budget.

The Rand researchers traced many of California's educational problems to Proposition 13, the 1978 voter initiative that set limits on annual property tax increases and fundamentally altered the way schools were funded.

Before Proposition 13, school districts raised funds by setting local tax rates with voter approval. Proposition 13 switched that function to the state. A subsequent voter initiative, Proposition 98, required the state to set minimum spending levels to protect education in lean times.

Even so, since the late 1970s, per-pupil spending has consistently fallen below the national average, the Rand researchers found. Funding has varied as the state economy has fluctuated.

"Proposition 13 has been a good deal for property taxpayers," said Paul Goldfinger, vice president of School Services of California, a private school-finance consulting firm in Sacramento. "But [it] has not been a good deal for schools."

Rand Report can be found at: