Schools Well Worth the Investment

John F. Dean is the Orange County superintendent of schools

The state of public education in Orange County is good and getting better. Orange County public schools are the best in California, according to the prestigious Field Poll. Test scores across the board lead in California and most of the nation. More students are completing Advanced Placement classes for college credits, enrolling in two- and four-year colleges and graduating.

Our dropout rate of 1.7% is conclusive proof of what the poll reported: Orange County students and their parents like their schools. Seventy percent awarded their schools grades of A or B. And your schools are the safest in California. If Orange County public education is so good, what’s the problem?

Before 1978, California schools were among the best in the nation, thanks to world-class universities and strong public support as evidenced by communities willing to tax themselves to build and equip schools. And then came Proposition 13. Without question, with people being taxed out of their homes, that vote was understandable. On the downside, Sacramento gained control over local funding decisions, and taxpayers were virtually precluded from directing their community and schools’ destiny. California plunged from fourth to 42nd in the nation in financial support for its public schools.

If children are to be successful adults in our society, they must learn English as quickly as possible. English Language Learner program problems are as much political as they are misunderstood. Eyes roll when teachers say it takes time to reach bilingual fluency. Foreign travelers report three-week courses make them comfortable with another language. Why does it take longer for our students? Because we’re not talking about conversational English. Picture yourself trying to read a physics text after a semester in another language.

Our state will spend $32 billion on K-12 education this year. That’s a lot, but it is a third less per person than it was 25 years ago. You and I pay only 3.7% of our annual income to support the public schools. Last year, Californians spent $8 less in real dollars per student than a decade ago. Despite the rhetoric, administration costs are among the lowest of any business or industry.


But a school is also “bricks and mortar” and, physically, our 500-plus schools range from excellent to aging, well-equipped to badly in need of roofs, paint, infrastructure and technology. With the exception of rapidly growing South County school districts, most school buildings throughout the county are well beyond the age of maturity, and the warts are showing.

Orange County has the potential to become the education capital of the world. When we decide to commit our talent and our treasure to the coming generation that is our future, world-class education is within our grasp.