Can the School System Be Saved?

by Jeff Camp | July 17, 2019 | 1 Comment
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Anti-education Villains, Beware!

People sometimes ask me how California's public schools can be saved. "From what?" I ask.

The answer varies a lot based on who's asking and what's echoing in the news lately. There's usually a villain: Charter schools, for example. Or unions. Or testing, or technology in schools, or the pension system, or bad teachers, or teaching colleges, or Prop 13, or…

Public education needs to be rescued from pessimism.

Wait a second. The premise of the question is that the education system needs to be rescued. I agree… but not from villains.

Public education needs to be rescued from pessimism.

A Universal Good

Universal public education is a tremendous accomplishment of civilization.

To appreciate what we've got, it helps to take a step back. A mere century ago, a significant percentage of children died before age six, even in the world's most-developed countries.

At that time, many children who survived early childhood lived hard lives. Education was expensive, and parents had to make fateful choices. The default expectation was that children who survived early childhood were meant to serve as unpaid workers for the benefit of their families. Not all kids got to go to school — especially girls.

Industrial progress in the early 1900s changed everything with astonishing speed. Child labor laws banned children from factory work. Somehow, a once-radical idea stuck: in childhood, kids aren't obliged to work for their parents — in fact the obligation runs the other way around. Within a generation or two, states passed laws that required families to send their kids to school at age six, when they were safely out of diapers.

Universal education drives economic expansion.

Local public schools were set up throughout each state and kids, including girls, were required to attend them. Because schools were funded locally, quality varied enormously. Schools in rich communities were well-funded with well-prepared teachers. Schools in poor communities were dilapidated and vocationally oriented.

The story of America's economic growth is intertwined with the expansion of education. As more and more segments of society have been included, America has become stronger and richer.

A key priority of the civil rights movement was to eliminate racist laws that prevented people of different races from living, working, and learning together. Public education became increasingly available to African American families, though even today the school district boundaries that determine where kids may attend school eerily match old red lines.

There's more. The equal rights movement challenged sexist laws and traditions that limited the classes girls could take and the roles that women could take. In 1975 America expanded public education to include children with disabilities.

I could go on, but you get the picture. As we explain in Ed100 Lesson 1.7, the history of America's economic growth is powerfully connected to expanded access to education. The story isn't limited to America, either. All over the world, people are learning more, earning more, and living better, longer lives. Other factors matter, but public education is a big part.

Universally Incomplete

Despite this long-term record of success, pessimism about public education flourishes. In part this is simply evidence that the work is incomplete. Public expectations of what education can accomplish are expanding faster than public education system can keep up. The results of education, while broadly improving, remain very uneven in ways that reinforce and perpetuate patterns of inequality.

Improvement feels slow.

These gaps aren't a matter of rumor or up for debate. Thanks to the adoption of standards there is broad agreement about what all students should know and be able to do at each grade level. State tests, based on the standards, show that a lot of kids aren't at grade level, and the patterns are durable. The California School Dashboard, the state's main tool for transparency about school results, shows the gaps in bright colors. Pessimists look at the results of tests based on those standards and see what they expect: the gaps are hard to close.

"See," the pessimists might declare, "the schools are broken!"

Such pessimism misses the point. The purpose of gathering data is to focus attention where it's needed, to discern the difference between what works and what doesn't, and to help do something about it.

For example, one of the key predictors of future failure in school is chronic absenteeism in elementary grades. In 2018, responding to Federal law, California made it easier to drive specific focus on this issue by adding it to the California School Dashboard. This has contributed to research into root causes of absenteeism and remedies for it. The system isn't broken, but it is big, slow and confusing. The system is capable of responding to problems and improving. Eventually.

Universal Lack of Confidence

Unfortunately, students don't have the luxury of waiting for the system to improve. The clock spins only clockwise. Each student's education unfolds on a schedule, ready or not.

Parents have great expectations when it comes to their own children's future; about eight in ten hope for their child to earn a college degree, according to a 2019 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). These confident expectations reflect a cognitive bias, as discussed in Ed100 Lesson 1.5. People tend to see the best in their own child. Similarly, people tend to see the best in their own school, their own town, and even their own school district.

Confidence falls with distance.

But this confidence falls with distance. People tend to have less confidence in their district than in their school, and even less confidence in the role of the state.

Public education in California is often described as a system of local schools, but it is more accurate to think of it as a statewide system of schools. Power over education funding and education policy is concentrated at the state level in California, both practically and by law. School districts and charter schools have a certain amount of autonomy and authority over how they use money, but they have little or no control over how much of it they have to work with. 

Schools in California are mainly funded by state income taxes. Once upon a time, before Proposition 13 passed in 1978, property taxes were the main source of funding for schools. The initiative flipped the dominant source of revenue for schools from local property taxes to state income taxes. Local property taxes still put money in the jar for local school districts. But the amount of funding that schools districts receive is determined by a statewide formula (LCFF). In all but a few places local property tax revenues fall short and the state fills in the gap with income tax revenue. The formula directs money to districts based on attendance, adding extra in places where children tend to have greater needs.

Universally Frustrating

This system is rational and explainable, but frustrating. California's level of funding for public education is low by national standards, and from the perspective of a parent in a school it can seem there is little to be done about it.

Each year, the state budget for public education in California is essentially determined by the terms of Proposition 98, a "minimum guarantee" formula added to the state constitution by a bare majority of voters in 1988. The state legislature has the power to allocate more for education than required by Prop 98, but it rarely does so. In fact, when budget times have been tough, the legislature has regularly "borrowed" from the Prop 98 guarantee to fund other priorities instead. In practice, California's state funding for education has been on a kind of autopilot for years, lately buoyed by the economy and the stock market, but at other times bruised by them.

Political confidence fades with distance. Sacramento feels far.

The state legislature can increase funding for education beyond the Proposition 98 minimum guarantee. It doesn't, usually, but in 2019 it did. The legislature can raise taxes or close loopholes enough votes. Voters have the power to force the matter, too. If advocates see enough public support, they might take action by pushing one or more ballot initiatives, betting that statewide political will to fund education is strong enough to overcome opposition.

Universally Fragmented

Perhaps unfortunately, it's all a question of political will. Why is that unfortunate? Because political will is relatively weak when it comes to funding education on a statewide basis. Voters feel pretty strongly about education, but mostly when it comes to their own kids and their own schools. When state funding for education goes down or sideways, communities with some wealth in them tend to seek new ways to raise money locally, where political will is strongest. 

Prop 13 slammed the door on local taxes for education, but left it cracked open just a bit. Communities can fund their schools locally by passing a parcel tax. It's hard to do. It requires strong popular support, no organized opposition, and a get-out-the-vote campaign with laser-beam focus that activates only "yes" votes. If more than one out of three votes is no, the measure fails. Most communities don't even try unless they are small, very organized, and usually comparatively wealthy. When large districts try it can end badly; in 2019 a parcel tax measure for Los Angeles Unified failed disastrously in the face of opposition from the Chamber of Commerce and others.

Some argue that local taxes for schools should be made easier to pass. They cite Proposition 39 as precedent; this initiative lowered the vote threshold for school bond measures from 67% to 55%, unleashing a wave of long-deferred school construction.

Others argue that the high bar for passing a local parcel tax is a blessing in disguise. Prop 39 has proved that more local measures would pass if the bar were lowered, but in a way that would be unfair. Wealthier school communities would pass bigger taxes and enact them more quickly. Total school funding in the state would rise, but it would become more unequal, further reinforcing the boundaries between districts that separate the children of the haves from the have-nots.

Universally Saved

People see the future of education unfolding in different ways. Some call for a system of steadily improving state-funded schools. Some call for further expansion of high-performing charter schools. Some (though not many in California) call for expansion of subsidized religious schools and private schools.

The consensus is alive and well.

These are very different visions for the future of universal education, and people have good reasons to disagree about them vigorously. But it's worth noticing that all of these visions share an important core idea, easily overlooked: the idea that all children, without exception, should receive a good basic education for free.

The consensus that public education ought to be universal is alive and well.

And that, at least, is cause for optimism.

Questions & Comments

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Jennifer B July 30, 2019 at 9:28 am
The deadliness of pessimism is reflected in your comments about property tax. Over a third of property tax allocated to K-14 education has been quietly repurposed by the Legislature. Even now, yet another $2B/year for three decades is on the chopping block in SB 5.

School property tax still pays the majority of remaining redevelopment obligations -- and will for another 20 years. It pays for over $8.5 billion state's Vehicle License Fee obligations to cities and counties. Over $700M this year is redirected as "excess" to educational needs in high-cost counties.

Proposition 13 cut property tax revenue, yes, but blaming Prop 13 has allowed so much more to be directed away from schools.
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