Briefing Report: Public Schools - Crisis, Danger and Opportunity

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Public schools face unprecedented fiscal challenges - some would say a "crisis." Yet with money or without, our schools have been inadequately educating our children for decades, all the while hamstrung by the simple illusion that more money will lead to success, and the truth that schools are constrained by the Legislature. We know what the problems are, and we know at least some of the solutions. Money or not, we must generate the political will to change the system to educate children or face the responsibility of consigning California to a very dim future.

Unprecedented Strain on Public Education

These are tough times for public education. After years of riding the Prop. 98 escalator ever higher, schools faced real cuts in 2008-09. According to the Legislative Analyst, the 2011-12 budget provides 6.6 percent fewer total dollars per pupil than in 2007-08. As a result of these reductions, school districts are reducing the number of school days; class sizes are increasing; summer programs have all but disappeared; and yes, districts are laying off employees. These changes are not desirable, but when state General Fund revenue decreases 19 percent since 2007-08, they cannot be unexpected.

Which is Why We Need to Change

In good times, when employment is high, gas prices are low, and the stock market is soaring, tax revenue flows into the state General Fund. And the fact of the matter is, when the money is flowing, few give serious thought to eliminating a failing program, reforming an inadequate system, increasing productivity, or maximizing quality. Instead, interest centers on maximizing one's slice of the pie. Accordingly, the public education community coalesces around a goal of increasing Prop. 98 funding, advocates for particular programs seek to expand their favorites or to create new ones, and the unions demand more pay and benefits for their workers (and, of course, higher union dues). Meanwhile, nobody hears those voices calling for school reform -- or if they hear them, nobody cares. Instead, what is important is that there is more money for schools. Except that more money does not help kids learn.

Money is Not the Answer

Money is not the answer to fixing failing schools. This is not to say it will never be the answer; certainly at some point, any organization could reach a breaking point and then money is an important part of the solution. But the larger point remains and is confirmed by reams of research. Below is a brief recitation:

  • "While comparisons to the national average may have illustrative value, the analytic basis for pursuing the national average as a spending goal is unclear…. Research and experience suggest that how we spend available education resources is a least as important as how much we spend on education." (LAO 2000-01 Analysis)

  • "The relationship between dollars and student achievement in California is so uncertain that it cannot be used to gauge the potential effect of resources on student outcomes…. [Data illustrating] API [Academic Performance Index] scores as a function of per pupil spending in 2004-2005…finds essentially no relationship between the two. ("Getting Down to Facts: School Finance and Governance in California," 2007 [GDTF])

  • "Lower unit expenditure [dollars per pupil, for example] does not necessarily lead to lower achievement and it would be misleading to equate a lower unit expenditure generally with lower quality of educational services." (Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development, "Education at a Glance, 2007")

  • "If additional dollars were inserted into the current system there is no reason to expect substantial increases in student outcomes related to state goals." (GDTF)

None of this is to suggest that dollars do not matter in education; they do. It is instead to demonstrate that it takes much more than dollars -- it takes expectation, freedom, accountability, and other intangibles that money cannot buy and indeed can corrupt.

We Have the Data

The Legislature has spent recent years deeply concerned about the critical need to collect data. If we could only collect more and better data, the argument goes, we will know what the problems are, how to fix them, and will do so. This is a laudable argument, but it is also untrue. Ironically, we have the data (distilled into information) that bears this out. We know that the class-size reduction program does not cause improved achievement, yet we still fund it. We know that more years of experience (or advanced degrees) does not necessarily equate to a better teacher, yet we require schools to make teacher employment decisions based on that construct. We know that money is not the answer, yet we continue to talk as if it is. And sometimes we get it right: we learned that Whole Language instruction was vastly inferior to phonics, and we switched (back) to phonics; it worked. We can improve schools, it just takes the will to ignore the special interests whose chief concern is the adults and instead put kids first.

What Can Be Done?

Public schools face serious fiscal challenges, and will continue to face them in the near future. But more importantly, we individually and collectively face the challenge of finding the best way to educate our kids. Some choose to educate their children in other settings - home schools, parochial schools. This is a rational choice. Most children, however, remain in the public school system, and if we want to improve that system, we have to recognize that the status quo has changed - and that even with money, the system was not, would not, and will not work without fundamental changes. What can we do? Below are some changes we can make, changes that will help schools and children, revenue or not:

  • Improve teacher quality. Teachers tend to be good people - altruistic, energetic, persistent. Yet our system - state law that we can change - cares not about their quality and by extension cares not about the children they teach. Kati Haycock of the Education Trust stated in the Summer 2010 edition of Education Next that "the impact of individual teachers is so great that providing top-quartile teachers rather than bottom-quartile teachers for four years in a row would be enough to completely close the achievement gap." We know this, and if we truly care about educating kids, we will do as Stanford researcher Eric Hanushek suggests, "keeping those teachers who do a good job while eliminating those who are inept." The Legislature can easily empower school districts to do so, if the will exists.

  • Improve our school governance structure. In California schools, everyone is in charge and nobody is accountable. The Governor proposes funding and policy for schools; the Legislature appropriates funding and enacts legislation; the appointed State Board of Education establishes standards and policies; the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction administers programs, allocates funding, and advocates for schools; local governing boards oversee their districts under the phantom idea that there is really any local control much beyond negotiating with the unions; unions spend millions to elect candidates and influence policy, seemingly always have the last say.  This Rube Goldberg governance structure does little for children or taxpayers, but allows easy deflection of blame when things go wrong. We know this. In fact, the 1996 Constitutional Revision Commission recommended "that the governor be given clear constitutional responsibility for elementary and secondary education… Deleting the constitutional status of the superintendent and giving responsibility for education policy to the governor would remove a perceived layer of authority between local school boards and the governor.  It would also clarify that the governor is ultimately responsible for the state's education policies."

  • Reduce the scope of collective bargaining. The Rodda Act, which governs teacher union bargaining, extends union reach far beyond matters of wages to include the school calendar, teacher transfers and reassignments, class sizes, evaluation procedures, organizational (union) security, layoff of probationary employees, and union "right to consult" on educational objectives, curriculum, and textbooks. These are matters best left exclusively to locally-elected governing boards responsive the will of the people, not to union carrots and sticks. We can change this, moving educational power and accountability closer to constituents.

  • Make budgetary flexibility permanent. In 2009, the state authorized school districts to spend "for any educational purpose" money received for a variety of legislatively-enacted and imposed categorical programs. In short, we cut the strings. The Legislative Analyst reported in February 2011 on a survey they conducted that a "vast majority of districts report categorical flexibility makes it easier to develop a strategic plan, devote funding to local education priorities, and balance their budgets." Moreover, the "majority of districts want strings cut for most remaining stand-alone categorical programs as well as K-12 mandates." This flexibility sunsets in 2014-15 (a year earlier for class size reduction, inexplicably). We know this works; we should eliminate the sunset. Will we?


Our schools face a fiscal crisis, but our children and our state have faced an educational crisis for at least two decades, manifested by poor pupil achievement and high dropout rates. Money or not, our public education system must change, and we can enact those changes - if we have the political will to put our children and our state first. If we do not, no amount of revenue or spending on schools will sustain California; we will leave for the future an ever less-educated people, unable to compete in a global economy and ill-equipped for the demands of a free society. The choice is before us, and the opportunity is now.


For more information on this report or other Education issues , contact Roger Mackensen, Senate Republican Office of Policy at 916/651-1501.