Low marks for Brown, not his ideas

California voters give Gov. Jerry Brown low marks overall for the way he has handled K-12 education. But, at the same time, they support some school reforms that he’s championing, including directing much of new revenue to poor students, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll.

The poll, of 2,005 Californians earlier this month, revealed that a slim majority of 54 percent of likely voters

Most likely voters back Brown's tax initiative. Source: PPIC. Click to enlarge.
Most likely voters back Brown's tax initiative. Source: PPIC April poll. (Click to enlarge)

continues to support Brown’s proposed tax initiative in November, although nearly two-thirds of likely voters – and 89 percent of Democrats – back raising income taxes on the rich, the key element of the plan. What they don’t like, with only 46 percent for, 52 percent opposed, is the other piece of the proposal: raising the sales tax for schools (Brown is proposing one-quarter percent for four years).

More Democrats than Republicans, Latinos than whites, women than men back Brown's plan for higher taxes. Source: PPIC April poll. (Click to enlarge.)
More Democrats than Republicans, Latinos than whites, women than men back Brown's plan for higher taxes. Source: PPIC April poll. (Click to enlarge)

In January, 68 percent of likely voters and 72 percent of all adults told PPIC they would back taxing the rich and raising the sales tax to raise money for K-12 schools. That was before the initiative had a title and summary, which was read to poll respondents in the latest poll, so there’s no simple comparison. Nonetheless, the 14 percentage point drop, to 54 percent, is worth speculation. It could be that the complicated wording of the summary turned off some respondents, or perhaps it’s reservations after being told that only a piece of the money will go toward K-12 schools. The proposals also “guarantees funding for public safety services realigned from state to local governments” and “addresses the state’s budgetary problem by paying for other spending commitments.” Whatever the reason, Brown will face a hard sell getting the initiative passed in November.

There may be a competing initiative on the ballot that would fund schools exclusively, more in tune with what voters say they want. But the PPIC poll is hardly good news for civil rights attorney Molly Munger’s Our Children, Our Future initiative. It would raise an estimated $10 billion by raising the income tax for nearly all earners, and that wasn’t popular. Only 40 percent of likely voters in the PPIC poll favored a general income tax increase, with 57 percent opposed. Most Democrats back it (56 percent) but only 42 percent of independents and 21 percent of Republicans.

Brown can have the satisfaction of knowing Californians say he’s handling education better (27 percent approval, 23 percent among likely voters) than the Legislature (22 percent approval overall, an astounding 10 percent among likely voters).

Voters could be holding the Legislature responsible for the cuts to schools: 90 percent of Californians and 92 percent of likely voters agree that the state budget situation is creating a big problem or somewhat of a problem for K-12 schools. Nearly all Californians (87 percent) believe the “quality of education” in the state is at least somewhat of a problem, with 58 percent saying it’s a big problem. That same percentage of public school parents, a subset in the survey, said they are very concerned about teacher layoffs at their child’s school. And 78 percent of all likely voters disapprove of the automatic cuts to schools that Brown is suggesting if the tax initiative fails.

Positives on elements of reform

Brown has proposed a weighted student funding plan, a major overhaul of how schools are funded and governed. The poll doesn’t ask about that per se, but the survey did ask about the key elements of the plan. For the most part, Californians approve of them, in concept.

Flexibility and local control: More than four out of five Californians (82 percent) want local control of school spending decisions, either within school districts (48 percent) or at the school level (34 percent). Likely voters are even stronger on the issue: 53 percent want decisions at the district level and 36 percent at the school site. The one region where this is less so is Los Angeles, where only 40 percent want decisions made by the district; 21 percent (twice the state average) would prefer power to remain in Sacramento. That sign of lack of faith locally should be a warning to the Los Angeles Unified School Board, which is proposing a $298 parcel tax in November.

Targeted funding for poor students: Brown would funnel significant portions of new dollars to low-income students and English learners. Californians strongly support helping the former, less so for English learners, reflecting ambivalence toward illegal immigration.

Most Californians (82 percent) believe that school districts in lower-income areas of the state have fewer resources than school districts in wealthier areas, according to the poll. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of Californians say districts with high proportions of poor children should get a bigger share of new funding. But only about half (52 percent) say more money should go to English learners. (Since about three-quarters of English learners are also poor, we’re talking about roughly the same children.) For likely voters, the level of support drops to 54 percent for the poor and only 40 percent for English learners. Democrats provide the largest support across the board.

Other interesting findings in the poll:

  • Only about a third (36 percent) of Californians think that the state’s per pupil spending for K–12 public education is less than other states’ spending; 27 percent believe it’s above average. (In straight dollars, it’s 37th and 47th when regional costs of living are factored in.)
  • If a school construction bond were on the local ballot, 62 percent of residents 53 percent of likely voters  say they would vote yes ; it takes 55 percent for passage.
  • If a parcel tax to supplement funding of local schools were on the ballot, 60 percent of Californians and 51 percent of likely voters would support it – about the same level of support as in past years. It takes a 66 percent majority to pass one. Parcel taxes are regressive since the tax is the same, regardless of the value of the property. Support is about even across regions, although most parcel taxes have been approved by voters in Bay Area school districts. Latinos (72 percent) and Asians (65 percent), younger Californians, those without a high school diploma, renters and those with household incomes less than $40,000 indicate the most support for a parcel tax.

What the latest survey of Californians on higher education didn’t ask: a lot

The most interesting things about the latest survey of Californians’ views about the state’s system of higher education are the issues it didn’t address.

The survey, conducted by PPIC (the Public Policy Institute of California) and released last week, found – again – that a great majority of us believed that the state was underfunding its public colleges and universities. But – again, again – it also found that we weren’t willing to pay higher taxes or approve of higher tuition to make up for it. So what else is new?

Community college fees remain low

PPIC pollsters didn’t make clear to those it questioned that while all the attention was going to the rising tuition at the University of California and the California State University (CSU), fees at the state’s community colleges, though also rising, are still the lowest in the country and that low-income students get waivers for all fees. It made no distinction among the tuition and fees charged by the three segments.

If tuition at the two-year institutions were higher, a great many students would be eligible for federal grants or tax write-offs they can’t get now. In effect, the state’s low tuition policy is costing California many millions in federal money.

It didn’t ask whether Californians agreed with the protesting students and university employees at UC and CSU that university administrators were overpaid and over-perked. It didn’t ask whether in a time of fiscal crisis, professors at the University of California should be asked to carry heavier teaching loads than they do now. It didn’t address the dismally low student completion rate at the community colleges.

The survey asked whether respondents were “concerned” about the “overall quality” of education in each of the three segments of the state’s higher education system – they say they are – but gave no indication of whether that was just an expression of general grumpiness, like people’s views that the system was going in “the wrong direction,” or whether it pointed to anything specific.

Polls do disservice to a larger dialogue

There are a great many issues in higher education, as in many other things, which can’t be addressed in an opinion survey. But poll reports on a narrow range of questions, many of them getting predictable responses, also have the unfortunate effect of narrowing both media coverage and the general understanding of, and conversation about, difficult issues.

On higher education, the list of major issues, debates, and questions becomes increasingly crucial for people who seem to agree that, as one of them said, “the University’s funding from the state will not recover in the foreseeable future. UC will be lucky to hold on to the number of dollars that it now receives.”

So there’s increasing interest, among other things, in modifying the 50-year-old Master Plan, whose guarantee of low fees is already a dead letter, and perhaps scrapping it altogether.

Among the ideas: Decentralize UC, reducing the scope and functions of the central administration and devolving more authority and accountability to the campuses – possibly even abolishing the regents altogether and putting each campus under its own board of trustees. Although it’s a proposal that’s been kicking around for years, it creates the danger of  ten market-driven enterprises jockeying for student-customers and, abetted by local promoters and legislators, fiercely lobbying Sacramento for more regional pork. It’s already done now, but it could get worse.

Decentralize UC funding?

Some thoughtful people have also proposed that a much larger share of state funding go directly to students – and much less directly to the institutions – in the form of financial aid. That would obviously give the students-cum-clients more clout and force the institutions to be more responsive to their wishes. But it could easily also bring the marketing culture that already dominates much of higher education – the fancy gyms and student unions, the pandering to students who regard themselves as customers – to UC.

But the rigid Berkeley model for UC, endlessly trying to replicate Berkeley or UCLA in creating still more research universities and pinning each campus into the same institutional formula with roughly the same faculty pay and student tuition scales and academic programs, may be both financially unsustainable and educationally stultifying. High-quality education is available at countless colleges that are not research universities.

Equally important – and consistent with the proposals for decentralization – are growing calls for regional compacts among the local UC campus, two or the three CSU campuses, and as many as 10 or more community colleges: agreements to offer common courses in the first two years and give common academic credit wherever the student eventually chooses to go.

The ongoing unwillingness of some four-year universities, UC especially, to recognize community college courses with the same name and catalog description as their own courses and the general inconsistency in courses among the three segments is a frustrating impediment to countless students and an indefensible barrier to their ability to get a four-year degree. Creating common courses with all the resources that modern technology makes available would not just help overcome those barriers but lead to more efficient use of resources. It might even make for better courses.

Not all those issues can be addressed in opinion surveys. But there are all manner of other ways they can be raised and the public discussion broadened. This survey did just the opposite.

This column also appeared in today’s California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com). Peter Schrag 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 latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report, and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

Tax the wealthy to fund schools

Most Californians are worried that additional cuts to public schools will hurt the quality of education, but they don’t have much faith in the Legislature to solve the problem. A new survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that a majority of adults and likely voters support Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal for a special election to vote on extending a temporary tax in order to close the $26 billion budget gap.  However, most oppose a hike in the state sales tax or in personal income taxes – unless it’s aimed at the state’s wealthiest residents.

Support for the governor’s proposal has climbed slightly since last month, with 56% of likely voters saying they favor a special election, up from 51% in March. But the numbers vary significantly when broken down by party. Nearly three-quarters of Democrats – 72% – back the special election, versus 53% of Independents and 38% of Republicans.

PPIC interviewed 2,504 adults between April 5 and 19, 2011. They’ve been conducting this survey for seven years.

Parents say school conditions are worsening

An overwhelming majority of those surveyed said the quality of education will suffer if schools are forced to make more cuts. Public school parents are especially concerned, with 74% warning that schools cannot absorb any more cuts. Half the parents said education has already gotten worse in the past few years; nearly twice as many as when they were asked that question in 2007.

That came as a bit of a surprise to Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of PPIC, who said it indicates that the “state budget cuts have gone from being abstract to being noticeable to public school parents.” Specifically, parents are concerned about teacher layoffs, shortening the school year, eliminating art and music programs, and increasing class sizes.

Interestingly, most public school parents held positive views of their children’s schools. Half of them rated their schools with a B or better, a level that hasn’t changed in six years. However, there are deep differences by race and ethnicity. While a majority of Latinos, 59%, gave their kids’ schools a grade of B or A, 45% of Black parents said their schools only deserved a C.

Most people surveyed agreed that not all schools are equal. Sixty-five percent said they are “very concerned that students in lower-income areas have a shortage of good teachers compared to schools in wealthier areas,” and 79% said resources are not evenly distributed. In fact, two-thirds of the people interviewed said schools in lower-income communities should receive a larger share of money if more state funds become available.

Taxing the wealthy

A majority of voters wouldn’t mind if those funds came from additional taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents. Overall, 62% of likely voters would support raising the state income tax on the wealthy.

“That’s something we’ve consistently seen support for,” said Baldassare. “Most voters perceive what they’re being asked to pay in taxes is fair and reasonable, but wealthy people can afford to pay more.”

The support, however, is highly divided along party lines, with 82% of Democrats in favor of it and 60% of Republicans opposed.

The California Federation of Teachers (CFT) is already advocating for the tax hike, arguing that a 1% increase in the state tax rate on Californians earning $500,000 or more could raise $2.5 billion more for education. The cause has been taken up by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, who introduced AB 1130 in the Assembly earlier this year, although it’s as likely to pass as any other tax increase that requires Republican support.

Low marks for the legislature

The inability of state lawmakers to reach agreement on the budget has made them about as popular as Donald Trump would be at the President’s birthday party. Only 9% of likely voters approve of the way the legislature is handling public education.

Brown fares better, but only marginally. His job approval rating is at 40%; however, 31% are withholding judgment.

No wonder Californians don’t trust Sacramento to make decisions about school funding. When asked who should have the most control in deciding how state education funds are spent in public schools, a whopping 83% put their faith in local school districts.

“It’s always telling in terms of where people have their trust and confidence, and the flip side is where they don’t,” said Baldassare. “They don’t see a state government that is responsible and solutions-oriented right now.”

NCLB’s escape hatch for schools

It’s become a truism: Nearly every school will likely fail No Child Left Behind’s requirement that 100 percent of students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Politicians recite that reflexively. I’ve said it myself.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in calling for immediate reform of the law, upped the ante in testimony to Congress last month: 82 percent of the nation’s schools will fail to meet their proficiency goals this year – an increase of 45 percentage points over last year, he said. Challenged about the accuracy of the prediction, Duncan stuck to it in comments to education writers last Friday at a conference in New Orleans.

That same day, however, the Public Policy Institute of California released a report that not only contradicts Duncan’s projection; it calls into question the more dire predictions for 2014. According to “Improving School Accountability in California, close to 50 percent of schools in the state could make their proficiency goals in 2011, and that could actually increase to 56 percent in three years, even though by then the target for the percentage of students testing proficient will have risen from roughly two-thirds of the student body to 100 percent.

It’s not because hordes of California students will suddenly master their times tables and read beautifully. Eric Larsen, a research fellow with PPIC, said that probably in only a handful of California’s 10,000 schools will every student test proficient in math and English in 2014. They’ll likely be small elementary schools, with students from primarily wealthy families.

as many as 56 percent of California schools may make proficiency targets under No Child Left Behind in 2014. Without it, less than 1 percent would.  (click to enlarge)
PPIC projects that under Safe Harbor, perhaps 56% of California schools could make targets under NCLB by 2014. Without it, less than 1 percent would (click to enlarge).

But an escape hatch – the “Safe Harbor” provision under the federal law – could spare a majority of schools from the law’s penalties and the failure label.

The Safe Harbor rule hasn’t been a secret, but it’s only now beginning to have a large impact. And what’s true in California, with some of the toughest academic standards in the nation, is true elsewhere. The U.S. Department of Education hasn’t released a state-by-state breakdown for Duncan’s projection. In an email, spokeswoman Elaine Quesinberry said that the department based the estimate on the change in the proficiency rate of the top 25 percent of schools in a state and did factor in Safe Harbor. I’m still skeptical of the accuracy.

As the PPIC explains it, Safe Harbor allows schools to improve at slower rates than the state requires under the standard targets for NCLB. Over the next four years, proficiency targets will jump about 11 percentage points annually until reaching 100 percent in 2014. But not under Safe Harbor.

As PPIC explains it, “Safe Harbor says that schools and districts are responsible for reducing their rate of non-proficiency by 10 percent annually. As proficiency rates grow, the percentage point gain in proficiency needed to meet Safe Harbor requirements shrinks.” Take a school where only 40 percent of students test proficient in math – and therefore 60 percent don’t. A tenth of the 60 percent is 6 percent. If the school can raise its score to 46 percent, it complies with the law, even though the standard target for 2011 will be about 67 percent. In 2012, the target for proficiency will come close to 80 percent (it varies a percentage point or two  between elementary and high schools). If 60 percent of the students tested proficient the year before, they’d have to raise their scores to 64 percent.

Safe Harbor applies schoolwide and to subgroups of students. In 2009-10, 53.9 percent of students in California were proficient in English language arts, and 56.3 percent were proficient in math. In math, this ranged from 39.6 percent of African American children and 46.7 percent of Hispanics to 69 percent of whites and 82.5 percent of Asian students.

In 2009-10, only about 40 percent of California schools made all of the targets under NCLB. PPIC based its 56 percent school pass rate projection for 2014 on the assumption that schools would continue to improve as they have in the past. But if the rate of improvement slows, as few as 23 percent of schools will make AYP: 77 percent of schools will fail.

Value-added model to measure schools

The data I cited were a sidebar to the main point of PPIC’s report, which is urge the federal government to adopt a different measure of holding schools accountable when it revises the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the formal name for NCLB.

PPIC is recommending a value-added model of measuring a school’s effectiveness. In a case of perfect timing, that’s precisely what Los Angeles Unified did on its own and published Wednesday on its web site.

A value-added model makes it possible to examine a school’s impact on students’ test scores, based on students’ background characteristics and their past results on test scores. Under NCLB, most low-income and minority schools are designated as failures and, if they received Title I dollars, face stiff sanctions, while mediocre middle-class schools skate by. A value-added model has the potential of identifying – and perhaps rewarding – low-income schools that are improving faster than thier peers while singling out mediocre schools that should be doing better.

Value-added measures have become controversial when used to measure individual teachers’ performance. The Los Angeles Times did its own value-added model for elementary teachers in Los Angeles Unified and published the results. It will release another batch soon.

The PPIC study makes no judgment on using value-added models to evaluate teachers. But Larsen noted that a schoolwide application of value-added methodology can avoid many of the pitfalls of using it for individual teachers, such as the effects of team teaching and tutoring, non-random assignment of students, and distortions created by a small sampling size.

“By doing a better job of identifying exemplary schools and schools where changes are needed, an accountability system based on a value-added model has the potential to improve student outcomes in California,” the report concludes.

It also discusses potential challenges of a value-added model, such as how to factor in dropouts, and notes that to be effective, the statewide student data system – CALPADS – needs to be operational, in part so that data for students transferring into a school can be incorporated. The report recommends that sanctions against schools be postponed until California can evaluate schools on the basis of gains in individual student achievement.

Funding reform out of the ashes

With K-12 schools facing financial disaster if state taxes aren’t extended, it takes a pie-eyed optimist to discuss better times ahead. But, under rules for repaying schools what they’re owed, money for K-12 schools will eventually come in “buckets” when the economy does turn around, says Rob Manwaring, former K–12 education director of the California Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Knowing that is one reason why the Legislature should now set in place a more rational and fairer system to fund schools, Manwaring said Wednesday at an Assembly Education Committee hearing. The other reason is that a clearer, simpler method is a prerequisite to asking Californians to spend more on education. As Manwaring put it, “If I cannot explain to my mom how schools are funded, it will not work for voters.”

There is a fundamental agreement on what that funding system would look like, at least in concept, Manwaring and other finance experts said. And, with districts’ temporary discretion to spend categorical money as they want due to expire in a few years, school officials are craving stability and predictability.

That’s why Education Committee Chairwoman Julia Brownley, a Santa Monica Democrat, is bullish that the Legislature will pass her bill, AB 18, which will set the new funding framework in place, this year or perhaps next. Erin Gabel, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s legislative director, endorsed the concept at the hearing. Gov. Jerry Brown endorsed the principle of a student-centered finance system as part of his campaign platform. State Board of Education President Michael Kirst was a co-author of a funding formula that has become a basis of discussion.

Manwaring was joined at the hearing by Margaret Weston, a research associate with the Public Policy Institute of California, and Jon Sonstelie, an economics professor at UC Santa Barbara, who together wrote Pathways for Education Finance in California, incorporating the approach that Kirst  and others have proposed.

The details among the various proposals vary, but the principles are fundamentally alike. The funding formula would be reduced to three, maybe four, components. It assumes a growth in school spending under Proposition 98 of about 30 percent over the next 20 years, based on PPIC projections. That’s enough to make the  formula fairer, but not enough to raise California’s spending to the national average. If the Legislature or voters do eventually approve more money for schools – and the two current lawsuits are attempting to force that issue – the system for allocating the money would be in place.

  • Uniform base grant. This would be the largest piece, as it is now, but it would incorporate many of the categorical programs that districts must spend as the state dictates. The current revenue limit varies from district to district, with disparities amounting to a few hundred dollars per student in most cases to some mostly small, rural districts claiming $1,000 or more per student. The reasons are obscure, dating back decades, and no longer are justifiable or even explainable. The goal would be to raise all districts to the 90th percentile of revenue over time. Today, that would be about $5,600 per student (see Manwaring’s graphic), but it could rise to about $7,400, as Proposition 98 revenues increase over the next 20 years. The lucky 10 percent  of districts whose revenue limit exceeds the 90th percentile would get to keep what they have.  Potentially contentious details to be worked out: Should there be regional costs of living factored in, recognizing that it’s more expensive for teachers to live in San Francisco than Fresno? How much extra per student should high schools and unified districts receive; how much for small and rural districts? How should transportation costs be factored in? (The PPIC study and Manwaring’s figures cover the 2009-10 year. They do not factor in the impact of deferrals – about $9 billion in delayed payments to districts; correcting that could problem could delay funding reforms.)

    The goal would be to raise all districts' base grant to the 90th percentile or $5,600 at the current spending level. The vertical axix shows thenubmer of students in districts funded at the various levels. (Graphic by Rob Manwaring)
    The goal would be to raise all districts' base grants to the 90th percentile or $5,600 at the current spending level. The vertical axis shows the number of students in districts funded at the various levels. (Courtesy of Rob Manwaring. Click to enlarge it.)
  • Targeted grants, providing more money for English learners and low-income students, recognizing they need extra resources. This is the basis for the weighted student formula, though each proposal approaches this slightly differently. Sonstelie estimated the added cost, based on a survey of principals, at $1,000 per needy student in state funding. In 2008, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s bipartisan Committee on Education Excellence figured it would require about 20 percent extra funding for low-income students. In their calculations, Kirst and co-authors Alan Bersin (Schwarznegger’s former Secretary of Education) and Goodwin Liu (professor at UC Berkeley Law School and President Obama’s nominee for a federal judgeship) added a density factor, doubling the extra dollars for low-income students and English learners in schools where they comprised more than 50 percent of the student body.
  • Special education. These costs would be excluded from the targeted and base funding, although various proposals would adjust the special aid formulas to end disparities in funding among districts.
  • Adult ed, regional occupational centers. Districts now have flexibility over adult ed spending, and some districts are eliminating the programs or cutting them back severely. Defenders say they and vocational centers deserve protection from categorical consolidation. Advocates of other programs, such as arts education and phys ed, will argue that as well. The more programs that the Legislature shields, the more complex the formula and the less money there will be for weighted student funding and equalizing base-level funding.

As Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, noted in an earlier post, the state has already moved toward the system that reformers are advocating in funding charter schools. There is a General Purpose Grant and a Categorical Block Grant, with a supplement for English learners and poor students. But moving the rest of the state toward that simplified approach may not come easily, despite promises of simplicity, equity and transparency. Minor tweaks in the formula could produce significant shifts in revenues for some districts. There will be relative winners and losers. And holding districts harmless for current – or past levels of funding, before severe cuts of the past two years – will prolong the time it will take to create funding equity.

There’s also the critical issue of accountability – requiring that districts actually spend extra dollars on needy students and account for how they do it. That’s a subject for another day.

PPIC poll: Tax us to protect K-12 schools

Two-thirds of adults surveyed in a Public Policy Institute of California poll say they support higher taxes to maintain funding for K-12 schools. And a full 82 percent, including a majority of Republicans polled, oppose cutting K-12 education to reduce the state budget deficit.  No other part of state spending comes close to engendering such support in the poll, which was released Wednesday.

Gov.  Schwarzenegger should keep those numbers in mind, because they’ll only go up  in coming months, as school districts lay out next year’s severe budget cuts and, in March, when they send out layoff notices to teachers.

Continue reading “PPIC poll: Tax us to protect K-12 schools”