THE TIMES POLL : 63% Urge Wiser --Not More-- School Spending
Nearly two-thirds of Californians believe the way to improve their public schools is through wiser--not more--spending, but a bare majority is willing to pay higher taxes to restore state cuts in education funding, a Los Angeles Times Poll has found.
Despite frequent hand-wringing by policy-makers and business leaders, small majorities believe the public schools are doing at least an adequate job. And they oppose a measure on the June, 1994, ballot that would take some public education tax money for parents to spend on vouchers for private or parochial school tuition.
The findings of a telephone poll of 1,294 Californians, conducted March 20-22, indicate that there is no strong consensus for change in the way California educates its children.
“This really is a prescription for maintaining the status quo,” said James Guthrie, a UC Berkeley education professor and co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a university-based think tank. “These are probably not informed opinions, but they are opinions, and if the governor and Legislature were going to act based on them, they’d probably say, ‘Just leave it all alone.’ ”
In addition, the poll, which had a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, found limited support for efforts to reform schools by giving them more autonomy. About 48% favor giving public schools more freedom from state regulations, while 45% are opposed. And the poll showed no consensus on whether to let school districts raise taxes with a simple majority approval from voters instead of the two-thirds required now.
The poll findings come after a decade of reform efforts in California and across the nation, fueled in large part by fears that students are leaving school ill-prepared to help the United States compete in a global economy. But the state also is battling its worst economic circumstances since the Depression, leaving the public schools, which depend on Sacramento for most of their money, hard-pressed to cope with growing numbers of poor students who speak little or no English or who come to class lacking medical and other basic services.
Times Poll Director John Brennan said concerns about the economy have overtaken education as the prime issue among Californians, who he said have traditionally been more sensitive to education issues than the nation has been as a whole. In a May, 1991, Times poll, 16% of respondents listed education as the most important problem facing the state. This time, however, 10% mentioned education, tied with crime and gangs but behind unemployment (25%) and the economy (19%).
Another ominous sign for the state’s public schools turned up in the declining percentage of people who would give education first priority when it comes to protection from state budget cuts. Last September, 66% of Californians polled said education should be cut the least. That proportion slid to 42% in this month’s poll, although it still was far ahead of other state services. About 60% of those polled listed burdensome taxes as a greater danger for California than threatened public services, which drew a 29% response.
Adding to deepening concerns about the economy and taxes are persistent perceptions that officials in all branches of public services, including the schools, are not making the most of the money they are allotted, Brennan said.
“The sense that money is being wasted poses a tremendous challenge to policy-makers who are making an argument that funding needs to be increased,” Brennan said. “This is something that holds down the enthusiasm for doing more for schools.”
Asked whether the quality of the state’s education system can be improved by increasing school funding or by spending more wisely, 63% said money should be spent more wisely. Just 32% said it will take more money. Among poll respondents who are not parents, the proportion saying wiser spending was needed rose to 67%, while among those with children it dropped to 56%. But even 53% of those with children in public schools said schools needed to spend money more wisely, and 42% said the schools need more money.
At a time when the state’s per-pupil spending has plummeted to near the bottom among the 50 states, many residents show little enthusiasm for raising taxes for schools. But a slight majority--52%--said they would be willing to pay more to restore the education cuts imposed by the governor and the Legislature to balance this year’s budget.
The amount spent per pupil this school year, $4,621, is the same as in 1991-92, according to the state Department of Education. But because no state money was provided to cover rising costs in such areas as salaries and benefits, utilities or supplies, local districts were forced to absorb them by cutting in other ways--increasing class sizes, reducing counseling and other support services or slicing into academic programs.
Not surprisingly, the idea of raising taxes to make up for the cuts was somewhat more heavily favored by parents (57%) than by non-parents (50%).
“I would be willing to pay more if that would improve things like overcrowding and violence, things that are degrading to the whole community,” said Vicki Cloutier, 28, a San Diego County mother of a toddler and a 4-year-old.
But Robin West, 37, a San Francisco-area bank clerk who makes do on $25,000 a year, said schools must learn to get along on what they have. “A lot of my friends and I have had to tighten up our spending, and there is no reason the schools can’t do that, too,” West said.
Under California’s historic property-tax-cutting Proposition 13, passed in 1978, local governments need approval by two-thirds of the voters to raise taxes or pass local bond measures. Several educators and policy-makers have proposed lowering the requirement to a simple majority. But the poll found Californians are sharply divided over the idea, with 45% opposed to lowering the two-thirds requirement for schools and 48% in favor. Among registered voters, 49% favored the change. The idea found slightly more support among parents (57%) and Latinos (52%).
Nor are most Californians ready to let parents spend tax money on private or parochial school tuitions, the poll found. Only 41% of those questioned said they favored a voucher system, while 51% were opposed. About 49% of parents favored vouchers, however, as contrasted with 36% of those with no children.
Surprisingly, there is division even among Catholics, among whom 45% favor and 48% oppose vouchers. Many Catholic educators and church leaders have advocated vouchers, especially as a means to enable poverty-stricken parents to have an alternative to problem-plagued urban public schools. Among Protestants, 43% favored vouchers and 50% opposed. The poll found that even the 34% of Californians who rated their local public schools inadequate tilted against vouchers by a 49%-42% margin.
Retired businessman Jim Tidwell, 66, who lives in the Central Valley town of Lemoore, sent his children to public schools but said he is fed up with public education and is leaning toward supporting the voucher initiative. “I believe our kids are entitled to a good education, and if a voucher system would assist them in getting that, then I would vote for it,” Tidwell said.
But most Californians still believe their public schools are doing at least an adequate job. And teachers greatly outdistanced other factors, including increased funding, in people’s views of what makes a successful school. More than half those polled--55%--ranked teachers most important, followed by parent involvement (23%) and small classes (10%). Only 4% picked school administration. Education reformers believe campus leadership is important, especially with the current push away from centralized administration and toward more autonomy for individual schools.
More than half those surveyed--53%--rated their local public schools adequate or better, higher than the 45% registered by a May, 1991, Times poll. In Los Angeles County, however, where the giant Los Angeles Unified School District has struggled with financial crises, violence and academic achievement problems and where a community-based reform effort is under way, there is somewhat greater dissatisfaction. About 40% of the respondents in the county said the schools are inadequate, while 47% said they are adequate. More than half of the county’s Anglos and Latinos feel the local schools are adequate. Three out of five people with children in the public schools rated them satisfactory, while 51% of those who are not parents thought the same thing.
UC Berkeley’s Guthrie said the poll reflects a generally held view that one’s own public schools are doing all right and that it is only the schools in other areas that need help.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Guthrie said of the poll’s finding that many people are satisfied with their schools, “but it disappoints me, and it tells me we have not done a very good job of helping the public understand that this system needs to be ratcheted up.”
How the Poll Was Conducted
The Times Poll interviewed 1,294 adults statewide by telephone from March 20 to 22. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the state. Random-digit dialing techniques were used to ensure that both listed and unlisted numbers could be contacted. Results were weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and household size. Interviewing was conducted in English and Spanish. The margin of sampling error for the total sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For certain subgroups the error margin is somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.
THE TIMES POLL / Californians on Education
Majorities of Californians believe that public schools provide at least an adequate education and favor making it easier for schools to raise funds locally. A slim majority would agree to higher taxes to make up for education funding cuts.
How would you rate the quality of the services provided by your local public schools?
TOTAL PARENTS Excellent 12% 15% Adequate 41% 42% Inadequate 20% 22% Very poor 14% 15% Don’t know 13% 6%
Do you favor or oppose changing Proposition 13 to allow local tax increases for schools to be passed with a simple majority rather than a two-thirds vote?
TOTAL PARENTS Favor 48% 57% Oppose 45% 37% Don’t know 7% 6%
What do you think is the most important factor in making a successful school? (Up to two replies accepted.)
TOTAL PARENTS Teachers 55% 54% Parent involvement 23% 24% Class size 10% 12% Discipline 9% 7% Sufficient funds 9% 10% Challenging curriculum 7% 7%
Do you believe we can improve California’s education system by using the money we spend nowmore wisely, or are we going to have to spend more?
TOTAL PARENTS Spend wisely 63% 56% Spend more 32% 40% Don’t know 5% 4%
NOTE: Parents are those with children under 18.
SOURCE: A Los Angeles Times poll of 1,294 adults statewide from March 20-22. Margin of error for the entire sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
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